Holy Family (Year C)
(1Samuel 1:20-22, 24-28 / 1 John 3:1-2, 21-24 / Luke 2:41-52)
Our readings today are all centred on the idea expressed for us in St. John’s first letter:
How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!
We heard in the first reading how Hannah besought the Lord for a son, and how, when her prayer had been heard and her wish granted, she gave her son to the Lord after he was weaned, by handing him over to the High Priest to serve in the Temple before the Lord all his days.
That does seem a heartless action to us; let us, however, just consider why we look at things in this way and why Hannah thought so differently. We regard her action as inadmissible because our first thoughts are of the mother and child relationship and/or for the child himself. Her first thoughts were of and for God. She was filled with gratitude to the Lord for the gift of her child, and she wanted to express not only her gratitude to God but also, and above all perhaps, her appreciation of His sovereign Lordship. Looking at the situation in that light we will perhaps no longer think so condescendingly of Hannah’s attitude and action: she was quite probably thinking on a far higher level than us. We tend to think naturally first and foremost; relatively speaking, very few people then go on to think more spiritually, and almost none supernaturally, whereas Hannah immediately thought on the supernatural level of God’s original gift of this son to her. Let us, therefore, respectfully put aside any questioning of the morality or propriety of Hannah’s giving of her child to God …. all we know for certain is that her action did indeed fit in with God’s providential plan of salvation because Samuel did serve in the Temple, indeed he served before the Lord all his days, and he became one of Israel’s greatest prophets. Hannah was guided by the Spirit of God to behave as she did, let us not pretend competence to judge her action, but rather let us question our own awareness of and love for God: would we, even though asked by God and inspired by His Spirit, ever have been able to respond with such selfless love and obedience as she showed?
Now let us turn to Mary. Here we feel more at home. Mary brought up her divine Son in the normal, human, way: He lived with her at home for the early years of His life with no apparent distinction from other boys living at home in the same village. In fact, Jesus lived with Mary and worked with Joseph until He was approaching His thirtieth year. Was Mary, therefore, responding to God less perfectly in this respect than did Hannah who made such a wonderfully self-sacrificing gift of her son?
No, that was not the case. In Jesus we see the wonderful union of humanity with divinity: Jesus was perfect God and perfect Man, perfectly divine and perfectly human as Mother Church teaches us, but living among men He was outwardly unexceptional from others around Him, a man among men. Now that perfect oneness of humanity and divinity in Jesus is reflected in the life of her who was the closest of all to Jesus. So, we see Mary too, both human and divine in a way that far excels all others, with no visible ‘flaunting’ of her hidden worth before God. Mary was most beautifully and fully human in her motherhood because her holiness was so much greater than that of Hannah; just as we have the suspicion that perhaps Hannah’s appreciation and holiness were far greater than ours is.
Hannah had needed to pray long and hard before she was given a son through the normal course of married life and love. Although Hannah believed her child was a gift from God, young Samuel, nevertheless, was in no way different from other infants: he was the child of his mother and father. Mary, on the other hand, had not prayed to be given a son herself: she prayed that God would visit His people Israel, that He would send the Messiah, but never did she in any way imagine that the she herself would bear such a child. How, could she? In both her mind and heart she wanted to be and to remain a virgin for God. Thus, the Child she was given was indeed totally God’s Gift; Israel’s Messiah and Saviour came at God’s behest exclusively; He came as Mary’s Child also at God’s totally exclusive behest: Mary accepted God’s Gift in response to His request made through the angel Gabriel sent to her for that purpose. So, Hannah prayed for a son and shared in the decision that led to his birth; Mary, however, made no such natural prayer for herself and she had no part -- by any whatsoever legitimate physical longing -- in any motherly aspiration or decision, for with totally-virgin simplicity, she most whole-heartedly out of total love for and obedience to God, acquiesced in and embraced His decision.
Hannah, as you heard, gave her child -- aged about 3 years -- to God in the Temple, to the High Priest Eli for service in God’s Temple. Again, Mary made no decision which would direct Jesus’ future. We are simply told that:
Every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover.
Therefore, for possibly eight or more years Mary and Joseph had taken Jesus up to Jerusalem to worship in the Temple and had then returned home from Jerusalem with all the other pilgrims; in no way visible to human eyes did this small Nazareth family distinguish themselves. Mary just watched and prayed over her Son, and waited for God: her Son had come from God, what did He want of Him? Mary did not know, and she did not push or precipitate things in an attempt to find out. Indeed, the annual visit to the Temple in Jerusalem became so normal a part of life that when Jesus was 12 years old, they went up again to Jerusalem and did not notice that the Boy this time was not with the party when they set out to return home. That means that they had noticed nothing unusual about the Boy whilst they were in Jerusalem; is also seems to indicate that Jesus had said nothing particular about His feelings in the Temple.
When He was twelve years old, they went up to the Feast, according to the custom. After the Feast was over, while His parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it.
Notice that! Mary knew nothing special about Jesus’ thinking during that visit to Jerusalem. He had gone there, received impressions, heard teaching and shared discussions that had stirred His heart and mind profoundly, but kept such thoughts – ultimately about His heavenly Father - to Himself. He did this so well that Mary had no idea He had been so thrilled, and was still so very deeply absorbed, with what He had heard there. She set off home with Joseph and the other returning pilgrims while Jesus stayed behind; and Mary never dreamt He was anywhere other than somewhere in the caravan journeying back with them to Nazareth:
Thinking He was in their company, they travelled on for a day. Then they began looking for Him among their relatives and friends.
Think! Hannah had shared in God’s decision to give her a son and she determined her son’s future. Mary had no share in any such decision: only her consent was asked; and Mary did not in any way determine her Son’s future. Jesus’ future was determined as a result of the communion which originally existed and gradually developed between the Child, the Boy, the Man, and God, His heavenly Father. This Child -- the Saviour of mankind -- was God’s Gift, and as such Mary had no say in determining His future. She was given the Child to nurture and cherish Him as a son of Israel, and also to teach and discipline Him, as her very own Son; but as Lord and Saviour, He was God’s Gift, God’s alone.
Jesus gave His mother and Joseph a hint in this direction when, on being found in the Temple,
His parents were astonished when they saw Him. His mother said to Him, "Son, why have You treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for You."
His answer was most strange; one apparently somewhat distant and not encouraging or inviting further questioning:
"Why were you searching for Me?" He asked. "Didn't you know I had to be in My Father's house?"
Mary had just spoken – somewhat reproachfully – to Jesus about His ‘father’ Joseph’s distress; Jesus, on this somehow very special occasion, did not allow that, for He, in response, spoke explicitly of the Temple as the house of His real and heavenly Father. Again, Jesus seemed surprised that Mary had not realized where He would be: “Didn’t you know?” It had, indeed, been a secret in which Mary had not been included: a secret between Jesus and His heavenly Father, between the Saviour of mankind and the One who had sent Him.
However, it soon showed itself to be a secret with a quite definite purpose for, all of a sudden, things were perfectly normal again, or so it appeared:
He went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them.
But things were never really quite the same again. Mary had been brought – such had been the purpose of the divinely inspired secret -- to realize much more clearly that there was something awesomely deep and mysterious developing in her growing Son: He was most certainly God’s gift to her, but He was now becoming somewhat unknown to, beyond, her; perhaps she herself was becoming less able to fully appreciate and anticipate this developing Man whom she had so totally cared for and formed as a child. Mary had always prayed, and continued to pray, for God’s salvation to be made manifest in Israel; how and when it would come-about she had not known. Now, however, she could not understand it even though it was developing before her very eyes. She continued to do what she had done for so many years already, she watched, prayed, and waited, but she now did those things ever so much more attentively and expectantly after this visit to the Temple when Jesus was 12 years old. We are, indeed, told that she lived and interpreted all the details of her subsequent, and apparently ordinary, life in the light of what had happened there in the Temple:
His mother treasured all these things in her heart.
We can get a glimpse of her watching and waiting, her prayer and her expectations, growing ever greater and ever more compelling if we just jump forward another 18 years. Yes, 18 years!
Mary was then at a wedding. Jesus had begun to attract disciples, followers, and He also was at the wedding feast with some of them. The wine ran out. What a disgrace for the young newly- weds! Mary after all these years of waiting and wondering felt impelled to turn to her Son to do something -- something perhaps only He might do -- about the lack of wine. At first Jesus was unwilling to accept her implicit request: it was not His or her business. He said it kindly, according to local custom, but it was as it would always be: with regard to His work of salvation Jesus was entirely His Father’s Son, God’s total gift both to Mary and mankind. Mary could in no way direct His future as Saviour. Nevertheless, on this special occasion -- the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry -- God the Father showed His great mercy and goodness to Mary once again, with the result that, at His Father’s behest indeed, Jesus eventually acted in accordance with her wishes, and the subsequent miracle thus came-to-be as the result of Mary’s request and as final guidance for her dearest Son, but more, and quite uniquely, as her maternal blessing for the work He was now entering upon as Israel’s Messiah and mankind’s Saviour.
We have all been shown something of the glorious mystery of God’s Son here on earth. St. John had long been absorbed with the thought of that, and you heard him cry out in our second reading:
How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!
My dear people, let us imitate Mary and “think on these things in our heart”. What a privilege to be called a child of God! Do we try to listen to the Holy Spirit as Jesus listened to His Father? Are we too easily upset when people show that they do not appreciate us? Perhaps that is a sign that we ourselves do not realize what it means to be a child of God; that we ourselves do not appreciate the wonderful privilege we have been given. Let us turn to Mary I say, and like her, think on and treasure these things in our heart.