by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“Behold, this child is destined to mark the failure and recovery of many in Israel, to be a figure who will be misunderstood and contradicted…” Luke 2, 22-40

Today’s gospel-reading draws our attention to aspects of our Judeo-Christian tradition with which many of us were familiar in our years of childhood and adolescence. A lot of attention was given to the importance of promoting the cohesion of the nuclear family. As regular church-goers, we came to know those elderly people who were labelled as “pillars of the church”. Simeon and Anna are presented to us as “pillars of the Temple” – very ordinary, prayerful people, who had faithfully been hoping for the coming of the Messiah in their declining years. When Mary gave Simeon her baby to hold, he had something like what we would now call a “peak experience”. Luke refers to it as a felt experience of God’s Spirit. Intuitively, Simeon sensed that the child in his arms was no ordinary child, and was, in fact, the Messiah, for whose coming he had been longing and praying. Emotion spilled out of him: “My dreams have been fulfilled, so I can now die contented.” Left speechless by Simeon’s unexpected outburst, Mary and Joseph were further stunned by his prediction that their lives would be trammelled by disappointment, pain and grief by the direction in which Jesus would take his life as he matured.

Luke makes it clear that Joseph and Mary had taken their child to the Temple to comply with a Jewish law that had been proclaimed by Moses hundreds of years before: “Redeem every first-born child among your sons. When the time comes and your son asks you: ‘What does this mean?’ you tell him: ‘God brought us out of Egypt, out of a house of slavery, with a powerful hand. When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, God killed every firstborn in Egypt, the firstborn of both humans and animals. That’s why I (Moses) make a sacrifice to God for every first male birth from the womb, and redeem (buy back) every firstborn son.’ The observance functions like a sign on your hands or a symbol on the middle of your forehead: God brought us out of Egypt with a powerful hand” (Exodus 13, 13-16).

In this context, there is a great irony in the fact that, within a very short time, Joseph and Mary were forced to go with their son as refugees to the very country from which their ancestors had been rescued. While Jewish law stipulated that every family’s firstborn son “belonged” to God, the ritual, to which Joseph and Mary were complying by taking Jesus to the Temple and making a traditional offering of two turtle doves to buy him back, has had a resonance in our own Christian history, when families were expected to give one of their children to the Church to become a priest or a religious Sister or Brother.

Both Matthew and Luke have included in their Gospels stories about Jesus’ birth, childhood and adolescence, which had been preserved orally for generations. Most Scripture scholars believe that these stories were late inclusions in the Gospels. Those stories illustrate just how accurate Simeon was in the predictions he gave to Joseph and Mary. As life unfolded for them, they were victims of the social and political tensions that impacted on ordinary people in Palestine. They were forced to seek anonymity as refugees in Egypt, and that entailed a long and arduous journey. Earlier, they had to endure village gossip when Mary’s pregnancy became obvious. Then there was the trauma associated with their adolescent son’s venture into independence as he engaged with teachers in the Temple. On top of all that were the surprises, insults, criticisms and conflicts that emanated from those with whom Jesus engaged when he embarked on his public ministry. Mary had to endure the grief of seeing her adult son wrongly condemned, tortured and murdered by those whose status and comfort were threatened by the message her son proclaimed. The manner in which Joseph, Mary and Jesus dealt with these challenges and injustices is an inspiration to the people of our generation as we contend with the fears, tensions and crises that threaten the comfort and security of our lives as families and communities.

There are times when I wonder if Mary and Joseph ever discussed with one another matters about which Gabriel had made no mention and which had been omitted from Joseph’s dreams. For instance, there must have been times when Jesus’ public outbursts surprised and embarrassed them. Surely, some of their son’s words and actions clearly indicated that he was his own man, that he was out of step with them. That very fact reminds us that such is the lot of every family that has ever existed in any culture or nation on earth. The exchange between Jesus and his parents that Luke records in the verses that follow immediately after today’s gospel-reading signals that Jesus was on the way to pursuing his own life journey. And isn’t that something that confronts every parent? No matter what the hopes and expectations parents have for their children, parents ultimately have to accept that the children they have loved into life and then nurtured, encouraged and educated are not their possessions. Every single human being is a mystery to be respected, and the first step towards respecting that mystery is to allow the other the freedom to grow into the person he or she wants to be. The bonds of family allow us all to be there to support those we love when their best efforts to be themselves falter and even disintegrate. Therein lies one of the great challenges of family and community life.

Still, the ways in which Jesus thought, spoke and acted during his three years of public ministry surely developed over the previous thirty years of his life. I wonder what the conversation around the family table at meal-times must have been like across the years before his public ministry, and, indeed, after he ventured into it. All three members of that family were part of a bigger village community. We know how friends, neighbours and acquaintances reacted when Jesus preached in his home-town synagogue in Nazareth. What he said did not suit the expectations of the locals. They responded angrily, intending to do him violence. Was there ever a time when Mary hoped and even prayed that her son might temper his criticism of the religious leaders, and cease stirring them up and baiting them? Were there times when she and Joseph wondered where his thinking was taking him? Were there times when they felt embarrassed by his words and actions? Let’s not forget that all three of them were fully human.

As we consider today’s gospel-reading and its implications for us and the various families and communities to which we belong, it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that we all belong to the human family, that we are all sisters or brothers to one another. Finally, it is worthy of note that, in telling the story of the encounter between Joseph, Mary and Jesus and Simeon and Anna, Luke was preparing his audience for what unfolds in his Gospel. The very words which Luke attributed to Simeon, and the fact that Anna and Simeon were the first to recognise Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ of God, point to the principal themes which Luke develops in his Gospel. – God has a preference for the poor and seemingly insignificant, the ordinary people would be the first to recognise and accept Jesus as the Messiah, and pain, rejection, insult and violence would be visited on Jesus and those who walk with him.