FEAST OF THE HOLY FAMILY
Rev. Dcn. David Justin Lynch
St Matthews Ecumenical Catholic Church, Orange CA
Genesis 15:1-6;21:1-3 Psalm 105:1-2;3-4;5-6;8-9
Colossians 3:12-17 Luke 2:22-40
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
Those of you who are choral evensong fans will recognize that as part of the Magnificat, the canticle sung after the first lesson. You’ll recall it as part of the Song of Mary which Our Lady sang at her visit to cousin Elizabeth, as Mary reflected on Her role in our salvation history.
As Bishop Peter told you many times, Jesus was nota Christian. He was a Jew. On today’s Feast of the Holy Family, we reflect on the customs of the Jewish family into which Jesus was born.
In Jewish families, male babies are customarily circumcised eight days after birth, and at that time, they are given their names. That is why for many years, January first was the “Feast of the Circumcision” and the “Feast of the Holy Name.” For Jews, circumcision is not just a surgical operation, but a ceremony that symbolizes a covenant with God. It is often celebrated as a ritualized family affair, with a communal feast following the surgery. In Jesus’ day, circumcisions were done at the Temple, which was where Jesus encountered Simeon. The Holy Spirit told Simeon he would not die until he had seen Jesus. He was so happy to see Jesus, that he burst into song with what is now known as the “Nunc Dimittis,” that canticle sung at choral evensong after the second lesson:
Also waiting to see Jesus was Anna the Prophetess, who had been faithfully praying for many years in the Temple.
Just like all of us, Jesus was born into a biological family. Like us, Jesus had ancestors. Abraham was part of His genealogy. The Gospel of Matthew begins with “Abraham was the father of Isaac” and continues on trace Jesus down through his step-father, Joseph. Luke’s Gospel traces the genealogy of Jesus backwards from Joseph through Abraham back to Adam. But who was Abraham?
The Book of Genesis tells us Abraham came from a place called Ur – that’s spelled U-R – which was in Mesopotamia on the banks of the Euphrates river in the Dhi-Qar province of modern day Iraq. Abraham left Ur and traveled into an area that came to be known as Palestine and/or Israel, but which in Hebrew Bible times was known as Canaan. He then eventually went to Eqypt and back again into the Canaan area near Mount Horeb. I’ve put a map up on the screen to give you an idea of the geography.
Abraham’s father was named Terah – T-E-R-A-H. Scripture contains very little information about him, so to research him, I consulted a “midrash.” A midrash is a Jewish commentary or embellishment on scripture. A midrash called Genesis Rabbah 38 tells us Terahwas a manufacturer and seller of idols. One day, Terah took a trip and left Abraham in charge of his idol store. A customer arrived and wanted to make an offering to all the idols in the store. This made Abraham mad enough to smash all the idols. When Terahreturned, he was upset that Abraham had destroyed the family livelihood. So Abraham made up a story. He said that a woman came into the store to make an offering to all the idols, but that the largest idol got mad and smashed the others. Terahdidn’t believe him. Terah said, “How can that be? They are only statues and have no knowledge.” Suffice to say, Abraham was not going to carry on the family business. God had other plans for Abraham.
Here, Abraham as a young man recognized the foolishness and impotence of idolatry and pointed the way to monotheism – a belief in one God – a belief that all of his children would eventually embrace.
But the story of the family of monotheistic religions descended from Abraham is not just about patriarchy. It’s about matriarchy as well. It’s a biological fact that, unless you are Jesus, all humanity comes from a mother and a father. Abraham had three women in his life who helped him build a family.
We heard a story today about how Abraham’s wife Sarah, old and thought to be barren, gave birth to Isaac, who grew up and became the father of Jacob who was renamed “Israel”. He is considered to be the patriarch of the Jewish nation. However, Isaac was not the only son of Abraham, nor his first son. Before Isaac was born, Abraham and Sarah, frustrated that Sarah was barren, agreed Abraham would have a relationship with Hagar, Sarah’s maidservant. Hagar gave birth to Ishmael. This all happened before monogamy became the predominant form of marriage. Multiple relationships were not unusual in Abraham’s day. However, human nature being what it is, anytime you have a love triangle with two women and one man, you’re eventually going to have jealousy. Sarah got mad and insisted Abraham kick Hagar and Ishmael out of the house, because Isaac had become her favorite son. Sarah said, and I quote, ““Drive out that slave and her son! No son of that slave is going to share an inheritance with my son Isaac!” Now, Abraham was a bit distressed, but God told Abraham to obey Sarah no matter what she asked of him. (My advice to all married men, based on experience: do whatever your wife asks of you. In my own life, what Beeper wants, Beeper gets). But just like God told Abraham a nation would spring from Isaac, God said also a nation would come from Ishmael. So Abraham sent Ishmael and Hagar into the wilderness. But they did not perish. God provided water for them when they were thirsty, and Hagar found Ishmael a wife when they reached Egypt, after reminding Hagar again that a great nation will come from Ishmael. I’ve put up a map so you can see the route they took.
Who are Ishmael’s descendants? According to the Quran, our Muslim sisters and brothers are the descendants of Abraham through Ishmael. But Abraham’s seed, as it were, did not stop with Hagar and Sarah. After Sarah died, Abraham took another wife named Katurah and had six more sons. Their names were: Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah.
Jews, Christians, and Muslims all look to Abraham as a common biological and/or spiritual ancestor. We Abrahamic monotheists are all one family. But we don’t act like it. Throughout history, Christians have not gotten along with Jews and Muslims, and Muslims and Jews don’t get along either. The 9-11 tragedy and the ongoing conflicts in the middle east are proof of all these mutual hostilities. The sewerof Christian hatred of Jews and Muslims runs long and deep, starting with the First Crusade in 1096, the Second Crusade in 1147, the Shepherd’s Crusades of 1251 and 1321, and the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290, from France in 1394, and from Austria in 1421. Anti-semitism continued a long and sordid history in Europe, culminating in the Nazi regime in the mid-20th Century. And this disease also infected our own country, beginning in the 17thCentury when Peter Stuyvesant sought to keep Jews out of New York City, and continuing until the 1960s when finally the civil rights laws were passed and enforced. It continues to manifest itself in contemporary America with demonization and stereotyping of Muslims as terrorists, and municipalities in places like Tennessee using building codes to prevent the construction of a Mosque. But why does it have to be this way? To paraphrase Rodney King, “Why can’t we all just get along?”
The answer as to why we don’t all just get along can be stated in one word: fear. Fear is a useless negative emotion. It does not build bridges and does not bake bread. The mutual distrust between Christians, Jews and Muslims demonstrates the extent to which people are scared of others who are different from them. This should not happen! The three Abrahamic faiths have similarities that should help us understand one another. The Five Pillars of Islam have generic equivalents in Christianity and Judaism.
The first, called “Iman”, calls for a belief that there is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is His messenger. Both Christians and Jews believe in one God. Christians look to Jesus as God’s chief messenger, while Jews look to Moses and the prophets in a similar way.
The second pillar is known as “Salah” and requires prayer five times a day. Christian monasteries have a routine of multiple daily prayers known as the Divine Office, also called the Liturgy of the Hours. For Jews, prayer seven times a day was often customary; Psalm 119, verse 164, proclaims, “Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous laws.”
The third pillar is Zakah, or almsgiving to the poor. Muslims believe that all wealth belongs to God and we hold it in trust as stewards. They believe our possessions are purified by setting aside a proportion for those in need and for the society in general. Doesn’t that kind of sound like catholic social teaching in the Vatican Two documents? In the Toráh, particularly the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, God listened to the cry of the needy, blessed those who considered them, and held accountable those who oppressed them. Institutions in the Hebrew Bible contained special provisions for the poor, and gleaning laws focused on the widow, fatherless, stranger, and poor. Modernly, Jews are among the more generous donors to charitable causes.
The fourth pillar of Islam is the Sawm, or fasting from sunrise to sunset for the month of Ramadan. Doesn’t that sound kind of like Christian Lent, when we fast? Fasting has also been part of the Jewishspiritual discipline. You might recall the book of the prophet Joel, where the prophet urges people to return to the Lord, saying “Proclaim a fast, call a solemn assembly.” And the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur, is by rabbinic tradition, a day of fasting set aside to afflict the soul for the sins of the past year.
The fifth pillar of Islam is the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. Christians and Jews do pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Those of us who follow the Catholic tradition are often pilgrims to shrines like that of Our Lady of Walsingham or Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. Jews celebrate The Three Pilgrimage Festivals where, anciently, Jews made pilgrimages to the Jerusalem Temple: Passover, commemorating the Exodus, Shauvot, recalling Moses’ receipt of the Ten Commandments, and Sukkot, a harvest festival.
For Christians, the defining point of difference from Muslims and Jews is who Jesus is. Neither Islam nor Judaism recognize Jesus as the Son of God. Muslims consider Jesus a prophet. Among Jews, a wide range of opinion exists, some positive, some negative. Reform Jews tend to be more favorable, Conservative and Orthodox less so, as a rule. My own experience is that most Jews see Jesus as a historical figure whose teachings resonate with many Jews. But why should differing views of Jesus be the basis for such abject hatred and vitriol? Didn’t Jesus teach love? Even though many people we know will never know Jesus in the way we do, that is hardly an excuse for bad behavior that is so contrary to the values for which Jesus stands.
At the heart of catholic Christianity is respect for the dignity of the human person. Even if we don’t share the same ideas about Jesus as the people we encounter outside Church, we still share a bond of common humanity with them. Being part of the family of humanity is not only about ancestry. Families, both our own immediate households and the larger family of humanity, are all about love. Family is about how we treat one another.
This is a picture of a Muslin, a man named Sher B. Quadri, who has worked for me about 11 years.
He is definitely not a terrorist; in fact, he is quite the opposite. He is one of the most peaceful persons I’ve ever known. Nothing upsets him. He works at the front desk at my law firm and helped me pioneer our paperless document system. But what makes him most valuable is the way he relates to other people. He is proof that you don’t have to be a Christian to act like one. Today’s Epistle describes him to the letter: “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving.” Those are the qualities that have made him one of the overall best employees I’ve had in my 29 years of owning my own business. The litigation world where I work as a lawyer is full of angry people and difficult personalities. In his job, Sher encounters them every hour of every work day with phone calls and people coming into the office. He disarms them with the peace that controls his heart, the peace that calls all of us all to be one family, one body, where the Word of Christ richly dwells. AMEN.