FROM A READING FOR DEC. 31, FEAST OF THE HOLY FAMILY
'Simeon took [Jesus] in his arms and praised God, saying..."My eyes have seen your salvation...a light for revelation to the gentiles and for glory to your people Israel"...' -- Lk 2:28,30,32


On the Sunday after Christmas, we usually celebrate the feast of the Holy Family. Surprisingly, this feast day is relatively new -- placed in the Church calendar in 1921 -- and was originally celebrated after the Epiphany.

Each year of our three-year cycle invites to reflect on a different aspect of this feast (though we can use the Year A readings each year). This year, Year B, we have the Gospel of the Presentation of Jesus in the temple. The readings are about promises, about faith and trust in those promises and about an enduring relationship or covenant between God and His people.

Incidentally, in Year A, the focus is about the flight into Egypt of Jesus, Mary and Joseph and their return to Nazareth. In Year C, we read about the finding of Jesus in the temple. This commentary is for the alternative readings given for Year B.

The first reading (Gn 15:1-6;21:1-7) takes us back to a pivotal moment in God's relationship with His people. God makes a promise to Abraham that he will have a son and heir. The continuity of the family line is important, but it is also symbolic. It is also about the continuity of God's relationship or covenant with His chosen people: They will have a future.

Call and response
Abraham's faith and trust in God is part of that covenant. The covenant is a relationship, and a permanent one, but it also involves both God's gift and our response. Psalm 105 echoes this, for the Lord does remember His covenant forever. Similarly, the second reading (Heb 11:8,11-12,17-19) recalls the faith of Abraham in God's promises and the dramatic test of faith when Abraham is asked to sacrifice his son, Isaac (Gn 22:1-18).

In the Gospel (Lk 2:22-40), Mary and Joseph present Jesus in the temple in Jerusalem. How is this connected with our feast day of the Holy Family?

It shows the Holy Family fulfilled the requirements of Jewish law, as any good Jewish family would. We might also say that, in Simeon and Anna, our two elderly characters the Holy Family meets in the temple, we have an extended family of faith. Later, Jesus Himself will say that whoever does the will of His Father in heaven is His brother, sister and mother (Mt 12:50).

Simeon has waited all his life for this encounter. He recognizes who Jesus is and what His mission will be. The "light of the nations" has appeared. The beautiful poem of hope that Simeon prays is called the "Nunc Dimittis;" it is recited each day by those who say the office of night prayer (compline).

Simeon (and us) can go in peace, because we have seen God's promises fulfilled and encountered Jesus, who is God's salvation and the light of the nations. Anna brings further joy to the encounter by giving thanks and praise to God for His covenant with His people.

Mission fulfilled
Simeon's words point to the future: to Jesus' mission and the fulfillment of that mission in His death and resurrection. As St. Bernard puts it beautifully, "The time will come when Jesus will not be offered in the temple nor in the arms of Simeon, but outside the city on the arms of a cross. The time will come when He will not be ransomed with money, but will Himself redeem others with His own blood."

In the Presentation, Jesus is offered up in accordance with the old law. In His death, He will offer Himself up as the new law or covenant. In the Presentation, Jesus as a first-born male is "redeemed" with an offering. In His death and resurrection, Jesus is the redeemer, and He is the offering and sacrifice.

In our baptism, we ourselves are presented to God by our parents and extended family. Our vocation and mission as a member of God's family is begun. We are now part of the covenant; of that relationship of gift and response. We are asked to become like an offering to God.

God's covenant, His relationship with us, endures forever. Let us not only give thanks for this gift, but also respond to it.