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Feast of the Holy Family, Years A, B, & C, Sunday after Christmas, Annually
Lectionary index # 17

Your assembly may have some choices among first and second readings today, especially in years C & B of the lectionary's three-year cycle. In late 2014, the current USCCB readings website displayed only Sirach 3 and Genesis 15, Psalm 128 and Psalm 105, Colossians 3 (long & short) and Hebrews 11, and Luke 22. Their 2013 page, still online, shows Sirach 3, Psalm 128, Colossians 3 and Matthew 2. Their 2012 page, also still online. offers 1 Samuel 1, Colossians 3, 1 John 3, and Luke 2. An ambitious preacher or parish liturgy committee may want to proclaim something different from the missallette default. So ask the committee or the preacher which of the readings, all described below, you should prepare.

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(A click on a scripture reference takes you to the Notes on those verses.)
First Readings 1 Samuel 1:20-22 Genesis 15:1-6; 21:1-3 Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14
Second Readings 1 John 3:1-2, 21-24 Colossians 3:12-21 Hebrews 11:8, 11-12

First reading, Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14 [Jerusalem Bible translation (where "Ecclesiasticus" is another name for "Sirach")]

The Literary/Historical Situation: Sirach is a very late book (around 180 B.C.E.), when compared with the books of Moses or the prophets. By this time in Israel's history, the great theological battles about monotheism are over, the kings have come and gone, and the Exile is a distant memory. The prophets have been silent for a long time, and many Jews are living in cities where pagans are the majorities. In these circumstances, writers asked how one should live a good life, what moral and spiritual choices should one make, what behavior is honorable in a religious person?

Respecting and caring for elders is one of those honorable behaviors. The author depicts it as a way to get right with God, too.

Your Proclamation: Proclaim this in a straightforward, imperative way. Pause briefly between the sentences. Pretend you are the author, the sage Jesus ben Sirach. (The modern, though secular, equivalent of the Hebrew sage giving such instruction is any of those self-help guru's, whose two-hour conferences your PBS station trots out during pledge week. While I don't mean to compare their messages to Sirach's, their delivery, exuding so much confidence in their message, is worthy of your imitation.)

Alternate first reading, 1 Samuel 1:20-22 [Jerusalem Bible translation]

The Literary Background: The Historical Books of the Hebrew scriptures begin with 1 Samuel. And 1 Samuel begins with the story of Elkanah, one of whose wives had children and one of whom did not. This reminds us of an earlier beginning, the story of Abraham and his wife Sarah and maid Hagar (See Genesis 16.), as if this story is to be read as describing a new beginning of the people. Hanna prayed for children, and Eli the priest, who reappears at the end of this passage, overheard her and encouraged her.

A nazirite was someone dedicated to God's service. Among their practices was the refusal to drink wine or to cut their hair. John the Baptist is the most familiar example.

Samuel was to become a leader of the whole people, and he eventually anointed Saul, then David, as the first and second kings of Israel.

Proclaiming it: This story is in the Lectionary today because of its resonance with today's gospel, the story of the boy Jesus in the Temple. Tell it like a story. It's noteworthy that it's the mother, not the father, who is determined to make the ritual offering of the son. When you recite Hannah's speech to Eli, make her sound excited, grateful and resolute.

Alternate first reading (preferred in year B), Genesis 15:1-6; 21:1-3 [Jerusalem Bible translation]

The Literary/Historical Situation: With Abram (later called Abraham) in chapter 12 of Genesis, a new biblical history begins. This era is separated from the past (Adam, Eve, Noah, the Tower of Babel) by several generations of proto-patriarchs, each of whom gets but one sentence in Genesis 11.

But with Abraham something new is afoot. Afoot indeed, for Abraham was the first of God's people to migrate to the future Promised Land. The drama of his becoming a father is as important as the journey and the destination. It takes even God six chapters to fulfill the promise that Abraham would have an heir. Remember, we have this story from the mouths of later generations, who seldom had better than a tenuous grip on their land, their nationhood, their lives and their fertility. Some of us alive today lived through yet another attempt, not at all fanciful, to exterminate Abraham's heirs. Abraham's brush with oblivion and extinction, and God's improbable rescue of him, are never far from the minds of his descendants. So the story of Sarah, Abraham and Isaac is just right for proclamation on a day when the Church meditates on family life. No other family came closer to not even being a family.

Proclaiming It: In the first half of the reading, make Abraham sound desperate. He has been following God's orders for three chapters now. He's rich and powerful, but he's still childless, even though God had promised, at the beginning of Abraham's journey, to make of him "a great nation." Abraham wants a son more than anything else he might have from God, and he tells God so forthrightly.

Use a different, firm tone of voice to make God's response sound definitive: "No! That one [Abraham's servant] shall not be your heir!"

Change your tone again, to something reassuring, gentle but firm, for God's statement about the descendants as countless as the stars.

Now you must pause, to signify that you are skipping the six chapters between God's promise and its fulfillment. It's going to sound abrupt no matter what, but less so if you pause. The best way to prepare to read these few climactic verses is to read the intervening chapters, Genesis 15 through 20. Then you'll know all the events that almost prevented this happy ending, and appreciate it all the more.

Navigating this page
First Readings 1 Samuel 1:20-22 Genesis 15:1-6; 21:1-3 Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14
Second Readings 1 John 3:1-2, 21-24 Colossians 3:12-21 Hebrews 11:8, 11-12

Second reading, Colossians 3:12-21 [Jerusalem Bible translation]

The Historical Situation: Prior chapters of Colossians have explained how the Christian is made a new creation by baptism into Christ. The letter winds up, as Paul's letters often do, with ethical exhortations. He's saying, in effect, "Because you're recreated, here's how you should now behave."

Proclaiming It: Read this quietly a few times and imagine how nice it would be to live among people who try to live this way (maybe you already do). Think gratefully about the compassionate, forgiving people you do know. Steep your soul in that gratitude for a few minutes. When you go to the lectern to proclaim this passage, remember those feelings. You want your listeners to say "I'm in!" when they hear your description of the healthy Christian community, so you have to sound like you want in, too.

Ask the presider or preacher at your mass if you should read the optional verses 18-21. At least one is a little inflammatory (in this author's country, if not everywhere) if not introduced from a historical perspective.

Navigating this page
First Readings 1 Samuel 1:20-22 Genesis 15:1-6; 21:1-3 Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14
Second Readings 1 John 3:1-2, 21-24 Colossians 3:12-21 Hebrews 11:8, 11-12

Another second reading (preferred in year B), Hebrews 11:8, 11-12 [Jerusalem Bible translation]

The Historical Situation: The recipients of this letter were Jews (thus "Hebrews") who had accepted Jesus as the fulfillment of their people's ancient hopes. But the majority of Jews rejected these converts. The purpose of the letter is to help the Hebrews bear this and to bolster their new faith. So the first several chapters explain how Jesus, and our relationship with him, take the place of Judaism's sanctuary, sacrifices and priesthood. (Over the three years of the Lectionary's cycle, Hebrews is the source of the second reading over a dozen times. Lector's Notes have treated the purpose and argumentation of the letter often. See links to them all here (click on the letter "H" in the top navigation frame).

Today's passage comes from a section of the letter where the author appeals to the example of great heroes of faith known to the Hebrews. Foremost is Abraham, of whom we also heard in today's first reading. Abraham is praised first for having the faith required to migrate ("to go out to a place that he was to receive ..."). The author goes on to say that by faith did Abraham become a father astonishingly late in life. Thirdly, you'll remember that God tested Abraham's faith by asking him to sacrifice his son Isaac, then stopped the sacrifice so that Isaac survived.

Our Liturgical Setting: So what's this passage doing in our Lectionary on the feast of the Holy Family, within a few days of Christmas? Isn't it a bit heavy? Are the editors of the Lectionary playing Scrooge to our Tiny Tim? Well, not entirely. There is a kinder, gentler alternative reading; see below. But more importantly, Abraham's story give us an opportunity to enlarge our notion of family and of holiness. Abraham's story was never merely about the nuclear family to which many moderns in the west are so devoted. Abraham's saga is about a nation, a people, or, we might say, a proto-church that goes beyond kinship, that acknowledges one Father, and sees all humankind as sisters and brothers.

Proclaiming It: The lector who accepts the above will want to emphasize the reward of Abraham's faith, "descendants as numerous as the stars ... countless as the sands ..." Say that phrase slowly, with awe in your voice.

In any case, pause before each instance of "by faith," in the hope that your hearers will capture the three-part praise of Abraham's faith.

A Theological Reflection: Should the preacher in your congregation take this tack, using Abraham as exemplar of the call to embrace a more universal family, praise him or her. That preacher sees the church as more evangelizing than assimilating, which is most courageous and praiseworthy. On the other hand, if you hear a preacher making something else worthy of this reading, or find it in another source, please let me know about it. I admit I could have missed something else quite important here.

Second Reading (optional in year C (December 30, 2012)), 1 John 3:1-2, 21-24 [Jerusalem Bible translation]

This passage deserves to be read slowly. Because its sentences are short, don't run them together. They're logically linked and you'll want your congregation to be able to follow and appreciate the logic. So don't rush. You might practice in front of a family member or friend who is not armed with a missallette. If he or she can follow you merely by listening, you're reading slowly enough.

Several other commentaries on these passages. All are thoughtful, all quite readable, from the scholarly to the popular.
Links may be incomplete more than a few weeks before the "due date."
Bible Study pages of Saint Charles Borromeo Church, Picayune, Mississippi. Covers possible first readings from both Genesis and Sirach, and possible second readings from both Colossians and Hebrews. Features a short history of the feast and an excellent introduction to the wisdom literature of which Sirach is a part. Shows how wisdom books fit into the scheme, if we can call it that, of the whole Hebrew Scriptures. Father Roger Karban's column from 2001 covers Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14, Colossians 3:12-21, Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23.

His 2007 column discusses Sirach 3:2-7,12-14, Colossians 3:12-21, & Matthew 2:13-15,19-23.

In 2008, he wrote about Genesis 15:1-6; 21:1-3, Hebrews 11:8,11-12,17-19, & Luke 2:22-40.

His 2013 column discusses the Sirach, Colossians and Matthew readings. It's the second of two articles on one page.

Read all of Father Karban's recent columns here, at the site of FOSIL, the Faithful of Southern Illinois.

The Text This Week; links to homilies, art works, movies and other resources on the week's scripture themes Great Sunday liturgy site at Saint Louis University
(Caveat lector. As of October 28, 2014, Lector's Notes' author is speculating about the exact URL of SLU's offering, since it's not yet posted. If you get a 404 Not Found, try here).

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Last updated October 28, 2014