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The Making Of A Holy Family

Sermons On The First Readings
Series I, Cycle C
How many times have your heard people say at this time of the year, "Christmas is about family. Christmas is for children"? Even though as Christians we know that this is not the case, we are not surprised that some people in our society talk this way, given the fact that children are the center of family life the year round. That is especially the case in a suburban community like Zionsville. So much of life here revolves around family and children. Families move here because of the good schools for their children. That demand in turn drives up the prices of real estate, increases the cost of living, and puts more stress on families. I continually hear parents complain about how frantic their schedules are as they try to provide every opportunity and privilege for their children.

Our congregation a few years ago purchased an in-depth sociological study of the Zionsville community. It was filled with all kinds of statistics revealing not only the usual demograhic statistics of the community, but also the residents' attitudes and values. The study revealed that one of the major needs of the community was good financial planning, because the parents wanted the financial security to provide for the needs, especially the educational needs, of their children.

When one takes a look at the whole of American society and not just suburbia, one gets the impression that in this country parents will do almost anything to make their children happy and successful.

Today's First Lesson calls our attention to a family that had an outlook on life that was very different from what we find in America at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Here we meet the family of Elkanah and his wife Hannah and their son Samuel. Perhaps you remember the story from your days in Sunday school. Elkanah and Hannah had been married for many years but were unable to have children. The couple prayed fervently to God to give them a child. They were so desperate that they promised to give their child back to God, to "lend" him to the Lord, instead of keeping and raising him in their own home, if God would give them a child. Eventually they were blessed with the birth of a son. They named him Samuel. When he was three, they took him to the temple and gave him to the priests to be trained for a life of service there.

Today's First Lesson recounts Hannah making her yearly visit to the temple to give her son the gift of a little robe she had made for him. It is a very simple and tender picture of a mother expressing her love for her son. But to our modern eyes the tenderness of this picture begins to fade when we realize that this yearly visit would never have even been necessary if Hannah had not already taken the drastic action of giving her son away. Contrary to our world, where our children are constantly worshiped and adored, here we see a parent whose focus was not on pampering her son but on worshiping God. Hannah's willingness to give her son to the Lord and only to be able to visit him occasionally in the temple is stunning when compared to how parents treat their children today.

It used to be that parents were proud when their son or daughter entered a religious vocation. In the Roman Catholic Church, it was a source of pride when a daughter became a nun or a son a priest. Even in Protestant families it used to be considered a great honor if a son would go into the ministry. I left home at the age of thirteen to go to a boarding school where young men had already made the decision to enter the ministry. Parents were honored when their sons showed such interest in a religious vocation. But the world has changed dramatically. Today I often hear of parents who are "disappointed" when a son or daughter gives up the opportunity for a successful career to enter the ministry. They fear that their son or daughter has become some sort of religious fanatic foolishly giving up fame and fortune for a life of service.

But this story is even more disturbing. In the past in this country when a young person chose "a religious life," it was assumed that he/she had at least some say in this vocational decision. No one dared to make the decision for them. But here Hannah makes the decision for her son. He is too young to be consulted. No one asked this three-year-old what he felt about this. If a parent were to do this today, you can just imagine some social worker screaming, "Child abuse!" The television cameras from 60 Minutes would show up looking to do a segment on this weird religious cult. The neighbors would call the police, all too willing to turn these abusive parents in to the authorities.

A story like this reveals that the gap between the world of the Bible and ours is huge. It doesn't even fit into our worldview. The scriptures report this story without flinching. They don't so much as bat an eye. From the scripture's point of view this is not a story about child abuse but about faithful religious commitment and a mother's love for her son.

Why was this strange reading from 1 Samuel ever chosen for today? One reason is obvious. The life of young Samuel seems to parallel the life of young Jesus in several ways. Similar phrases are used to describe each. Both grew in stature and in favor with God and the people. Hannah's song of praise upon the occasion of Samuel's birth seems to be similar to Anna's song of praise that she sang to the infant Jesus when he was brought to the temple for his presentation. And Hannah's song expresses many of the same sentiments and images used in Mary's great song, The Magnificat, which she sang after finding out from the angel Gabriel that she was about to give birth to a most miraculous child.

But there is also a big difference between these two families and how their family life is reported by the scriptures. The decision of Elkanah and Hannah to "lend" their son Samuel to God goes smoothly. There is no family conflict. Samuel grows in stature and favor and seems to have no disagreement with his parents about his life of service in the temple. Hannah's annual visits to carry to Samuel the little robe she had made for him are portrayed as the tender episodes of a harmonious and wholesome family life. But we do not see that same harmonious picture in today's Gospel. There we see a family in conflict. There we see a collision between Jesus' emerging sense of vocation and his parents' expectations of how a twelve-year-old ought to behave.

This conflict is similar to the struggle that every parent has with his/her children. It is sometimes hard to accept when you consider all the blood, sweat, toil, and tears that go into parenting, all the sleepless nights up with sick kids, the changing of soiled diapers, the sacrifices of time, money, and energy all because "we want the best for our kids." We do all these things for our children so that they can leave us. Such is the irony of parenting. Good parenting means that you have done a good job in preparing your children to need you no longer and to leave home and establish their own lives. It is not always easy for parents to let go after investing so much in their children.

Is that at the root of this conflict in today's Gospel? I suppose some of those dynamics may have been present, but there is a much bigger conflict going on here. This is not just about the collision of wills. This is not just another chapter in the continuing saga of every family, where the desires of controlling parents collide with a budding teenager's first attempts at independence. The conflict here is much greater. This conflict is ultimately cosmic. In this little family we catch a glimpse of what will one day a be conflict for the salvation of the world.

Luke's picture of the Holy Family makes it clear that this family is the ideal Jewish family. From the beginning of Jesus' life, all the Jewish traditions of presentation and circumcision were carefully observed. Now at the age of twelve, Jesus is taken to Jerusalem for what may have been his bar mitzvah. We are given the impression that this was not the first Passover that this family went to Jerusalem to observe. The bottom line is clear. Jesus was a "kosher Jew." He was brought up to honor and observe the Jewish law. His parents were making it clear to him that they loved and honored the law and expected Jesus to do the same.

Therefore, when Jesus willfully chose to separate himself from his parents, he wasn't just being a rebellious teenager asserting his independence. He was thumbing his nose at the Jewish tradition. He was challenging and questioning the value of his "kosher" identity and the very importance of everything his parents had taught him. When Jesus defied this kind of life defined by Jewish law, he was not just defying his parents and community custom. He was defying God. And worse yet, he defied God in the name of God! What nerve! What audacity! Yet, isn't that what was behind the most important words of today's Gospel, when Jesus said, "Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" Or as some of the other translations of this passage put it, "Did you not know that I must be about my Father's business?"

This is the only incident from Jesus' youth recorded in the New Testament. It certainly portrays the growing independence of a young Jewish teenager. But on a deeper level it reveals Jesus' growing sense of identity and mission. It is an identity and mission that is sending him in a very different direction. He senses that he is different from other Jewish boys his age. He is critical of his own parents, not just because he is a teen starting to sow his wild oats and beginning to separate from his parents. No, Jesus senses that his "family" is bigger and higher and more significant than his relationship to Joseph and Mary. His "family" and "father" and mission are now so much more important than his ties to his earthly parents. He senses that he is being pulled in another direction and the One pulling him is not only divine but in some sense his very own "Father." And this mission puts him at the same time at odds with God's own law.

Mary and Joseph did not understand the significance of what Jesus was doing and saying. They must have been deeply troubled by Jesus' behavior and especially these words about his "Father's house." Here they had been trying to do their best and be good Jewish parents by keeping all of the laws and traditions, bringing their twelve-year-old son to Jerusalem for Passover, but then they discover that it was not good enough. In fact, they had missed the point altogether. This son of theirs was now claiming to belong to someone else, to another Father and family -- God's. How could they dare to disagree with God?

Mary and Joseph must have been feeling the same kind of failure and frustration that parents feel today. Like them, we love our children. We try to do what is best for them. But then we feel guilty when our schedules are so full of activities that there is no time to pass on the faith. We try to teach our children right from wrong and the importance of praying and going to church, but then wonder if they have really made it a part of their hearts or whether they are just "going through the motions." And then when they behave so badly or disappoint us in some other way, we wonder if we have totally failed.

Passing on the Christian faith is the most important gift we can give our children. Recently I reminded two couples who had their children baptized that this was the most important responsibility in their already huge job of parenting. There is no greater gift to give their children than the gift of Christian faith. In the Baptismal liturgy they would be asked to promise to do that. And then we, the rest of congregation, would pray for them. Why? Because the job is so difficult that they are going to need our prayers. And most of all they will need God's mercy because of the mistakes and failures they are sure to make.

The baptismal parents are always rather stunned and surprised when I point this out to them. Baptism is supposed to be a joyful and upbeat occasion. This is a time for celebration, but then the liturgy pours water on their party by reminding them of how difficult this business of being a parent will be. In fact, the most important business of all, passing on the faith to their children, will be so difficult that they will need not only our prayers but also God's forgiveness.

In the same way Mary and Joseph must have been stunned and surprised when Jesus "talked back" to them. Here they thought they were doing everything right only to find out that they were wrong. Jesus rebuked them for not knowing that he must be in his "Father's house." Their stunned silence was a tacit admission of their guilt. They had been exposed. It was obvious that they "didn't get it."

But there is another surprise in this story. Despite this act of defiance and Jesus' gentle "rebuke" of his parents, he does return home to Nazareth with them. He is "obedient" to them. Luke says, "Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor." It seems that even though there was this one incident of youthful defiance, Jesus still chose to return home compliant and submissive. Why? Could it be that this is one more signal of the meaning of Jesus' birth as the "Immanuel," of God coming to be with us, literally to be one of us? Even though this incident clearly revealed Jesus' growing self-understanding as the "Son of God," being the Son of God did not mean that he fled the dirt and grime of ordinary human life. On the contrary, being the Immanuel, "God with us," meant that he chose to join Mary and Joseph and all the far from perfect parents of this world in the many broken and fractured imperfections of human life, including our sin, and carry them all the way to the cross. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus will only make one more trip to Jerusalem. On that second trip he will suffer the consequences of his return to Nazareth, of his choice to become one with his parents and us. He will be arrested, crucified, and die.

At the cross Jesus suffered the consequences of his loving choice to join us in our broken humanity. There he suffers the ultimate fate of his holy mission. There he exchanges his holiness and righteousness for our failed attempts at parenting and passing on the faith to our children. Everything that is wrong and broken with our unfulfilled lives he carries to the cross and suffers the fate we deserve. But that is not all there is. "On the third day" he is raised by his Father from the dead, triumphant, mission accomplished. The mission he began to explore that day in the Temple in his "Father's house," at the tender age of twelve, was finally finished. His "Father's business" of forgiving sinners, which would be at the center of his adult life, was vindicated. That day in the Temple when Jesus defied his parents and claimed to be part of something that contradicted not only the law of his people but the law of God reached its climax on Jesus' return trip to Jerusalem. There on the cross and then at the resurrection Jesus fulfills his "Father's business" and his mission, so that the church today can say to disappointed and imperfect parents, "Your sins are forgiven."

It is this divine mercy, it is this exchanging of the forgiveness of sins among family members, that finally makes families "holy." It is the holy love of Jesus that promises to give parents the courage and the strength to carry out their vocation. It is the mercy of the heavenly Father offered "in the name of Jesus" that promises to give families the power to resist the skewed and perverse values of so much of family life today. Perhaps then the example of Hannah in today's First Lesson will no longer seem so strange. Perhaps then parents will be willing to give their children back to God. That may not necessarily mean giving your children to a religious vocation, but it does mean that parents will show their children in their words and actions that trust in the mercy of God is indeed the most important thing in life. Then bringing children to Baptism is a priority and not an afterthought. Then taking time out of the busy daily schedule for Sunday school, confirmation classes, family prayer, and talking about the faith are necessities.

If parenting is raising your children to leave home to live lives of their own, then Christian parenting is also raising your children to leave home. But "leaving home" means learning to trust God and his mercy. "Leaving home" means trusting your Father in heaven more than anything else. "Leaving home" means trusting your heavenly Father in preparation for that day when you will go to your heavenly home forever.

Such parenting is not destructive of family life. If anything it helps the development of a healthy family life where parents and children love and care for one another. It certainly was not destructive of family life for Hannah and Samuel. Hannah still loved Samuel and Samuel still loved his mother. Such love was exchanged in the tender scenes that we see described in today's first reading.

It was not destructive of family life for Mary, Joseph, and Jesus either. It is no accident that the New Testament is totally silent concerning the events of their family life from Jesus' birth until Jesus' adulthood, except for the incident reported in today's Gospel. The New Testament is silent because their family life was so ordinary, so mundane, so down-to-earth, just like the daily routine of our family lives, that it did not warrant any special reporting.

But this silence is important! Why? Because that is exactly the point! It is in the ordinary routines of daily life that families are made holy. It is in ordinary routines of the everyday that the business of our Father gets done. It is there just like in the families of Jesus and Hannah before us, that people are loved, cared for, and forgiven. It might seem too ordinary, so unspectacular, but it is at the heart of a holy family.
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