Simeon and Anna Praise the infant Jesus, Arent de Gelder, c. 1700, Mauritshuls (The Haugue)
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the First Reading
Solemnity of the Holy Family
Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14
December 27, 2020
The theme of barrenness is prominent throughout both testaments. We see it for the with Sarah in today’s reading. However, in Genesis alone, there is Rebecka and Rachael. We need also remember Samson’s mother and Hannah in Judges and 1 Samuel. In the New Testament, there is most famously Elizabeth and in Christian legend, Anne the mother of Mary. We can look at this sentimentally as a feeling of loss but in the ancient Mid-East, especially in the Old Testament, this was a serious problem on many levels.
First spiritually, people did not believe in an afterlife and eternity would be through one’s children and further progeny. In today’s reading the LORD tells Abram that he is his “Shield” and that his reward will be very great. Abram’s response might seem to us ungrateful or even rude “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless (Ge 15:2.) Indeed, he continues: “See, you have given me no offspring, and so one of my servants will be my heir.” (Ge 15:3)
Without an heir, especially a son who would carry on his name, none of God’s gifts would be lasting.
There is also a financial or even political part of this that is more important in this context. Abram was a tribal chieftain. There was no social security nor nursing homes. Older people were cared for by their families and parents without children were notoriously exposed to neglect and maltreatment as they grew older. Even the most powerful – like Abraham and Sarah – were not completely secure and in some ways might be more of a target for unscrupulous people.
We can see of course great symbolism in this which has been used very effectively by theologians in and out of the bible for centuries, but we should never lose sight of the precariousness of the childless.
When we meet Abraham today, he has followed the LORD faithfully for considerable time. Remember the story. He was a prosperous citizen of the cities of Ur and then Haren. His wife Sarai was however barren. Thus
The LORD said to Abram:(Ge 12:1-2, 4)
“Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and
from your father’s house
to a land that I will show you.
“I will make of you a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
so that you will be a blessing.
Abram went as the LORD directed him,
and Lot went with him.
Abram was seventy-five years old
when he left Haran
“Great nation” for both the LORD and Abram meant children. Yet Abram has followed the LORD’s instructions and has not had a child from Sarai and as we have seen today has made his steward his heir.
As is typical for the LORD, he chooses a person in his or her weakness to do his work. The first section of today’s reading is the formal call of Abram. This pattern will be repeated often in the Scriptures especially in the prophets, but we can find echoes in the New Testament as well:
1) Appearance of God: After these things, the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, (Ge 15:1a)
2) Commission and promise from God: I am your shield I will make your reward very great (Ge 15:1b)
3) Objection: But Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what good will your gifts be, if I keep on being childless and have as my heir the steward of my house, Eliezer?” Abram continued, “See, you have given me no offspring, and so one of my servants will be my heir.” (Ge 15:2–3)
4) Repetition and clarification of the call: Then the word of the LORD came to him: “No, that one shall not be your heir; your own issue shall be your heir.” He took him outside and said: “Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can. Just so,” he added, “shall your descendants be (Ge 15:4–5)
5) Confirmation and acceptance: Abram put his faith in the LORD, who credited it to him as an act of righteousness. (Ge 15:6)
This is now a question of faith and righteousness for Abraham. We shall not find definitions of faith or righteousness in the text of the Old Testament. We can understand them only by observing them being lived out. The author of Genesis will direct our attention to the relationship between the LORD and Abraham. The promise that the LORD makes to Abram seems outlandish, yet Abram trusts him to keep following him for at least 13 more years before Sarai becomes pregnant with Isaac. These years were not without testing. Yet we should also note that this is a true relationship; it is mutual. The LORD trusts Abram to be his vessel. Even at this early date, the LORD was clear that his purpose was to employ the people who will become the Jews to be his presence to the entire world. Therefore, in the call of Abram, the LORD says:
I will bless those who bless you(Ge 12:3)
and curse those who curse you.
All the communities of the earth
shall find blessing in you.”
In following the LORD, Abram is in a right relationship with him thus he is “righteous.”
Our reading today skips six chapters to the birth of Isaac. The LORD had chosen the name and it means “He who laughs” Saria now Sarah, was at best pitied and worst ridiculed for her childlessness but by trusting in the LORD she and Abram, now Abraham, had the last laugh.
So, can we.
This is a time of weakness for us. Is it a time of clarity as well? Have we seen that our trust should be in the LORD? I had many plans in March both personal and professional which I thought were reasonable and practical. None of them will see the light of day. Yet, other things of which I could not have imagined have occurred, some quite wonderful and fruitful. Jesus found St. Charles parish in our weakness and has made us strong. If we embrace this, we will be righteous and with Sarah and Abraham we can laugh at fate because we have faith.