Holy Family A – 12/26/10
Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14, Psalm 128:1-5, Colossians 3:12-17, Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23
Complete Biblical Texts
Not long ago there was an article in the New York Times about some Jews who are washing the bodies of dead loved ones. The restoration of this ancient religious law has motivated Jewish volunteers to learn the “rituals of bathing, dressing, watching over the dead bodies of neighbors and friends.”  One rabbi said, we visit the sick and comfort the bereaved; now we care for the deceased as well. Very few of us in the Christian tradition have been known to carry out this beautiful, tender act.
The first reading this morning is from Sirach, a book of wisdom. It can be an incentive to be considerate of and to take care of our parents; a commentary on the fourth commandment. Anyone who knows what it is like to have a parent suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, another illness or old age can identify with this passage.
The second reading, a primitive catechism, lists those virtues that are required of us when caring for others — compassion and humility, gentleness and patience. The text says we clothe ourselves in these Christ like attributes. (This could be a reference to a newly baptized person who, rising up from the font of water, puts on a new Easter garment.) The expression “fearing God” in the psalm is a reminder not to boast about what we do. Rather, those who care for others are like a fruitful vine bearing the joys of life.
Caring for one another is not always easy. It is an interruption in our routine and it can be emotionally and physically messy. When someone in our family becomes sick and requires our immediate or long term care we are obliged to respond no matter how inconvenient it may be. When others are hungry and homeless, abused and dishonored, we come to their rescue as members of a holy family.
The story in the gospel is an intriguing one about avoiding danger; about caring for someone’s welfare. It is not just about how the family of Joseph and Mary sidestepped the murderous Archelaus, the son of the infamous Herod. Rather, it places Jesus in the long history of Israel.  Instead of returning to Judea Jesus’ family headed north to Nazareth in Galilee.
The word Nazareth is key in understanding why this happened. It means “shoot” in Hebrew and is a reference to the life that grew out of the stump in the wilderness.  Jesus, for Christians, is considered the flower that blossomed from the tree of Jesse. By going to Nazareth, scholar John Pilch says, the parents of Jesus “directed him toward his destiny.” 
The concern that Mary and Joseph had for the safety of their children is an example of how out of our way we go for the sake of others; to help them reach their destiny. Like the poor refugee family, Joseph, Mary and their children, “millions of families around the world still flee for their lives and suffer the wrath of their governments.” 
Tenderly caring for destitute strangers and familiar loved ones is a human thing to do. Bathing a dead person, like some Jewish women are learning to do, takes us to another level of care. It is a beautiful example of how much we are connected with one another in life and in death. This seasonal story of the Holy Family is not just an adventurous tale about escaping death. Rather, it reminds us about the cost of caring for one another.
1 Vitello, Paul. “Reviving a Ritual of Tending to the Dead.” New York Times, 12/13/10
2 Fuller, Reginald H and Westberg, Daniel. Preaching the Lectionary: The Word of God for the Church Today (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press) 2006 (Third Edition), pp. 25-26
3 Fuller and Westberg. Ibid.
4 Pilch, John J.. The Cultural World of Jesus, Sunday by Sunday, Cycle A (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press) 1995. pp. 13-15.
5 Pax Christi USA. 2010 Christmas message