Feast of the Holy Family
Luke has told us because of God’s intense love for us God has entered our world: dwelling among us, dining, rejoicing, crying, healing, bleeding, and triumphing with us. We see Jesus being introduced to a wider faith community by his parents, to be part of a new creation –a new family. But as Simeon prophesies, it will not end happily for Jesus, his parents, and certainly not for many children slaughtered at the time. It continues in a world that can be dark and hostile in form of ongoing hostility between nations, between groups, the arms trade and vilifying language And God cries with those distraught mothers as well as those today.
Today’s feast confronts and challenges all forms of individualism. We are the body of Christ. We are being pushed beyond exclusive identification with our birth family and narrow alliances to a broader and inclusive identity with others. Pope Francis calls us to ‘think of ourselves more and more as a single family, dwelling in a common home,’ which is expressed in ever wider circles of responsibility. But how can we shape a culture of Christianity where love has no boundaries? How can we create a world where the newborn poor, homeless, refugee, Palestinian would be cherished? Jesus is love incarnate. This feast shows a way how we can create a world Jesus and the love we are called to reigns in our world. We see that he comes into the mess, the rubble, in the broken places of our world, to show us a different way to live.
On Thursday (December 28) we celebrated the feast of the Massacred of the Holy Innocents to prompt us to cry out against all violence against the human family as Pope Francis pleads for ‘all those children who are killed and ill-treated’ whether in the womb, displaced by war and persecution, domestic violence, abused and taken advantage of before our very eyes and our complicit silence. He said, ‘Their impotent silence cries out…’. ‘On their blood stands the shadow of contemporary Herods’ (Empire). Herod’s massacre is repeated again now with Israel’s relentless bombing campaigns in Gaza that has, at this point, resulted in over 8,000 child deaths, making it the most dangerous place to be a child in the world.
Vast numbers of children are victims of violence, objects of trade and trafficking, forced to become soldiers, abused and kidnapped from their schools, and even drive to suicide for their sexual orientation. We need to say to those in power, ‘You can’t have any more of our children, our sisters and brothers.’ Where some plot death, we need to bring life. Francis reminds us that children and the elderly are the most vulnerable and often most forgotten groups and society that abandons them is a failed society. God’s deep concern for the ‘least of these’ calls for our attention. Many claim they do not see God amid desolate headlines, but this Christmas makes it impossible to look away to see God buried with families under rubble and whose heart is squarely in the midst of poor and people whose lives continue to be uprooted.
Today’s feast becomes meaningless when ideas of an ideal family are projected on it. Another world is being proclaimed and incarnated in the ruins of this world. Our challenge is to love in all places and to cross boundaries. We cannot allow tight boundaries to be drawn around the universe of acceptable recipients of our love and justice. Jesus’ family is an ever-wider circle. He did not talk about family values but cut through some society’s most important relations to become people who hear and do God’s Word.
On the threshold of 2024, let us ask how we might be in solidarity with those who need defending and work for policies that protect the rights and dignity of children, all people, and the planet. The reading from Colossians beckons us, as holy and beloved people, to live differently in our world — to embrace compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness and above all, love. Thus, the readings for the feast of the Holy Family invites the world's people to turn the page of history, to embrace a new vision for 2024 even though Christmas this year is a combination of both joy and grief. The joy comes from knowing and believing that Christ has been born into our world and is in the process of making all things whole again. As we reflect on Christmas, do we wonder where Christ is being born today. It is, as always, in all the broken places – the rubble - in Bethlehem, in Gaza, in Ukraine, in the many places of conflict in our world; in the broken places – the rubble - of millions of refugees, where racism exists, where domestic violence occurs, where LGBTIQA+ people are discriminated, where people are homeless and dispossessed from their ancestral lands, and where our Earth is being devastated.
Simeon’s prayer to God over the baby Jesus, was probably a prayer he said over every new baby that was brought to him in the Temple because each child marked the continuing life and God’s blessing of the family of the Jewish people. But his words are pointed and painful when he says, ‘a sword will pierce your own soul too’ (v.35). And these words would also have been directed at Joseph. There will be opposition and our opposition to God’s plan for all creation is made clear in how we respond to this child -represented in the faces and lives of every child, especially the most vulnerable among us. We cannot avoid the fact that this is not just a retelling of Jesus’ young life, but a story that appears time and again in the lives of so many people. Mary and Joseph’s grief is to see Jesus heading for the cross and not always understanding what he was on about. Jesus was not just Mary’s child. He was Joseph’s child, too. This same suffering is experienced of mothers and fathers of victims of the extra judicial killings – senseless killings – that occurred and occurs in the Philippines. It is the suffering of losing a child to senseless, macho, egotistic display of power in the Philippines, in Israel, in Russia and so many other places.
We must not forget that Jesus was born in an imperial-occupied territory. It began with the census decree that obliged Mary and Joseph to go to Bethlehem. The census was not just about counting heads but part of a larger Roman imperial project to extract ‘dollars and cents’ to feed the war machine. The census was Luke’s subtle way of setting up the inevitable confrontation between imperial power and Jesus’ reign. The angel announced to the shepherds that ‘good news of great joy’ was on its way, and ‘on earth peace among those whom God favours! (Luke 2:14). Caesar Augustus brought ‘peace on earth’ but it was a peace based on power - the pax Romana facilitated through subjugation. In direct contrast was the peace of Jesus which was first experienced by unassuming shepherds, not the powerbrokers of religion and state; it was through a vulnerable baby, not an egotistical emperor; and when that baby grew up, he led a movement of inclusive love and nonviolence, even dying rather than seeking revenge or violent retaliation.
The biblical stories in their respective imperial contexts compel us to acknowledge contemporary imperialisms, too. Palestinian Lutheran pastor Mitri Raheb points out that empires have characteristics applicable to the state of Israel: control of movement, control of resources, Israeli settlements that make the area look like Swiss cheese, state terror, and exile. Mary and Joseph would need to cross multiple checkpoints to journey from Nazareth to occupied Bethlehem today; there are nearly 7 million Palestinian refugees today, with up to 700,000 displaced in 1948 following the creation of the state of Israel, and 1.7 million displaced from the recent war. When we honestly read our political contexts today, despite the atrocities and injustices Jewish people have experienced through history, the state of Israel now, with the U.S.’s military backing, is the empire. The Palestinian people today mirror the plight of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and the ancient Israelites. The biblical narrative contains a critique of dominating power and leads us to solidarity with those who suffer under it, regardless of ethnicity or nationality. This Christmas, Pope Francis said, “To say ‘yes’ to the Prince of Peace, then, means saying ‘no’ to war, to every war and to do so with courage, to the very mindset of war, an aimless voyage, a defeat without victors, an inexcusable folly…… To say ‘no’ to war means saying ‘no’ to weaponry…. how can we even speak of peace, when arms production, sales and trade are on the rise? Today, as at the time of Herod, the evil that opposes God’s light hatches its plots in the shadows of hypocrisy and concealment. How much violence and killing takes place amid deafening silence, unbeknownst to many!...”
The gospel of peace on earth always calls us forward to a path of healing and justice by breaking into all our forms of violence. Valarie Kaur says that ‘the hierarchy of pain is the old way. The moment we allow our hearts to go numb is the moment we shut down our humanity.’ We cannot ignore generations of trauma being created through violence in Gaza and so many other places. Let us not decry some deaths but not others. Let us not be seduced by those who refer to ‘worthy victims’ and ‘unworthy victims.’ The cycle of violence causes suffering all around and requires grief and solidarity all around. This feast today calls us to view the suffering of others through the lens of solidarity. Here is our hope.
Our most powerful response to the horror in Israel and Palestine is to refuse to surrender our humanity.
You will be told by some
The deaths of Israeli children are unfortunate but inevitable, because Israel’s occupation of Palestine is brutal and wrong.
You will be told by others:
The deaths of Palestinian children are unfortunate but inevitable, because it is the only way to keep Israel safe from terror, and Hamas brought this on its own people.
You will hear:
Our aggression is the only response to their aggression, our fear more justified than their fear, our grief more devastating than theirs ever will be.
But oh my love, the hierarchy of pain is the old way. The moment we allow our hearts to go numb is the moment we shut down our humanity.
I don’t know the solution to the conflict in Israel and Palestine, but I do know the starting point: To grieve ‘their’ children as our children.
It’s the only way to break the cycle.
To my loved ones who are Israeli, Jewish and Palestinian: I see your searing pain. I love you and grieve with you and am reciting my ancestors’ prayers for protection as you search for your families and bear the unbearable. May love find you through the impossible.
To all of us witnessing Israel and Palestine:
What does love want you to do?
If you want to help but don’t know how:
Begin in relationship. Who in your life is hurting from this? Offer to walk with them, listen to them. There is no fixing grief, only bearing it together. Only then do we know what to do next.
If you are falling apart:
Your breathlessness is not a sign of your weakness, but of your strength. Of how deeply you feel the horror, how deeply you care. You still feel. And that matters in a world that wants us to feel nothing. Who can feel it with you? Breathe with you?
Opening our hearts to grief— others’ and our own— is how we hold our humanity in a world that would destroy it.
It’s how we will begin to survive this.
This is demanding labor. But once your eyes are open — you can never again explain away the deaths of children again, like so many are doing right now.
I stand with the Palestinian people. I stand against the brutal occupation of Palestine and the ongoing subjugation, assaults, and killings of Palestinian people.
I stand against the ongoing antisemitic violence and persecution of Jews, past and present, including the vicious antisemitic attacks right now in the United States.
I have been mourning with Jewish friends who have family in Israel hiding in bomb shelters. And I have been mourning with Palestinian friends whose family in Gaza have no shelters to hide in at all.
My mourning transcends political agendas. Your mourning can too. This is not about equivalency. The time has come to center the human cost of the conflict above all.
Can we stretch our hearts beyond what was previously imaginable? We must if there is to be a world.