A reading from the First Book of Samuel
(Chapter 1:20-22, 24-28)
This is a heart-warming and heartbreaking story, especially for those of us who are parents. Many of us have prayed for a child as Hannah did and were overjoyed when that child was born. I suspect that none of us would do what Hannah did, nor would we ever be asked to do so. This event, however, took place thousands of years ago in the context of a different culture and religion. Hannah did what she thought was right and dedicated the life of her child to God’s service. And Samuel did, indeed, perform great service to God and to the people of Israel.
We can identify with Hannah in this sense: We sometimes make sacrifices for our children and for others, and we them with some pain but also with the joy of giving from deep in our hearts.
“Blessed are those who fear the Lord and walk in his ways.” This expression, “fear the Lord,” has been misunderstood for centuries and has been used to frighten and mislead people into both spiritual and emotional illness. The fear of the Lord that the Psalmist is talking about is not the cringing, debilitating fear that drains the joy in people and keeps them from the all- powerful and all-forgiving love of God. The real sense of the word “fear” in Hebrew is “awe” and “wonder” at God’s great power and might.
Are you truly in awe of God, enthralled with his goodness, in wonder of his great creation? Or are you still caught up in the words you may have heard in your childhood: “You better be good or God will punish you.” How you answer that question may either bring you a powerful sense of God’s peace and protection or encourage that little voice that is sometimes in your head that says, “You’re not good enough.”
A reading from the First Letter of John
(Chapter 3:1-2, 21-24)
John is writing to people who have been shunned by their fellow Jews and persecuted by the Roman Empire. They risk their lives every day. What do they have to show for it? First, they are the “children of God. … They shall be like him.” They “shall see him as he is.” And “the way that we know that he remains in us is from the Spirit he gave us.” That’s not bad for anyone but especially for people who are on the bottom of the social and economic ladder. Imagine that you are being told that you are like God, that you will see him face to face, and that his very Spirit lives in you right now. That was John’s great message to Christians then, and it is his message to us. This is what we have been told. This is who we are. God’s Spirit lives in us—now and always.
As we celebrate this feast of the Holy Family, we need not only to look into the past at the family of Jesus but also to look now into our own families and rediscover the Spirit that can help us heal all our wounds, including those that we bring to one another, and allow us to truly celebrate the family that we are with all our faults and insufficiencies.
A reading from the Holy Gospel according to Luke
Some years ago, I read a novel about a man who takes his daughter, his only child, to the supermarket and has her sitting in the shopping cart as they reach the checkout. The girl asks him to take her down and let her stand behind him as he puts the items on the counter. Against his better judgement, he agrees, and when he is finished and turns around, she is gone. He never sees her again even though he spends the rest of his life looking for her.
Losing a child, even for a while, is a horrifying experience. Imagine how Mary and Joseph must have felt. They knew how special Jesus was, and now he was nowhere to be found until they returned to the temple and saw him talking with the teachers. Mary “kept all these things in her heart.”
One heartbreaking day some 20 years later, Mary again lost her son, but a short time later she and the world had him back, and he remains with us, is holy family, forever.
Painting, The Holy Family, by the anonymous Master of St. Bartholmew Altar, circa 1500. Musée Städel, Frankfort, Germany.
Excerpts from the English translation of the Lectionary for Mass © 1969, 1981, 1997, International Commission on English in the Liturgy Corporation (ICEL). All rights reserved.
Bill Ayers was a founder, with the late singer Harry Chapin, of WhyHunger. Bill was a radio and TV broadcaster for 40 years. He is a member of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Church in Centerport, New York.