Some alternate readings are optional in liturgical year A, preferred in year B, etc.
Writing less than 200 years before Jesus, Sirach defended Judaism's wisdom against pressure from dominant Greek ideas. Here he names care for elders as a cultural and spiritual treasure.
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.)
This is the story of Hannah, a barren woman who prayed for a child, conceived and bore him, and dedicated him to God. He was Samuel, the first to rule God's people as a judge. A nazirite means someone dedicated to God's service, like John the Baptist.
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.
For a people always on the brink of extinction, Genesis gives a six-chapter story of how their first ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, struggled to create a family. These verses frame those chapters.
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.
In the community of John there were members who wanted to drop the hard parts of the gospel—the things hard to believe and the things hard to practice. Others could tell that the easier so-called gospel wasn't faithful and wasn't going to last. The arguing was fierce. The apostle weighs in.
Who wrote this and to whom? Some traditions say the author of this letter is the apostle and evangelist Saint John. The gospel according to John speaks of a "disciple whom Jesus loved," by which the evangelist my have meant himself, without specifically naming him. This letter may have been written by the same person, or by a disciple of his. What is clear is that there was a large, important and troubled community (or communities) of early Christian believers who coalesced around a leader whom some of their writings name "John," or "the disciple whom Jesus loved" or simply "the beloved disciple." The whole "Jesus-way" of doing things was unprecedented. It called for new approaches in relating to God, molding families, practicing religion, relating to neighbors and, especially, relating to non-neighbors and enemies. Gifted disciples like John, (and Saints Paul, Matthew, Mark and Luke) contributed inspired writings that helped these communities find their way.
What's the context of this part of the letter? Members of "The Community of the Beloved Disciple," as the great 20th-century American Catholic biblical scholar Raymond Brown called them, were beset with internal disagreements threatening to tear them apart. Simply put, some members had tried to take the hard stuff (hard to believe, hard to put into practice) out of the gospel. Others could tell that the proposed easier gospel wasn't faithful and wasn't going to be good in the long run. The arguing was fierce. The wise elder known as John or the Beloved Disciple wrote this to settle the arguments, bolster the true believers and vanquish the heretics (people promoting false, divisive teaching within a church).
For our purposes, know that the "bad guys" in this argument
Now how should you read this aloud? There's no context given in the text, but your listeners don't really need it. They expect to hear something about how to live a good life, and that's what you're going to give them.
If you dare, pretend you are the Beloved Disciple. You're the wise elder leading a troubled community. Your authority is in part due to your connection to the historical Jesus; you leaned up against him during the Last Supper. But mostly your stature comes because you walk your talk. You love this community. Its divisions break your heart. You have a very deep, mature spiritual life that gives you confidence when you speak about God. So just gently speak the saving truths. God will take care of the rest.
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.
If you would like to know more: To learn more about the First Letter of Saint John, Click here. That's the introduction to the book from the website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The Next Chapter link at the bottom will take you into the book proper.
Earlier chapters of this letter explain how baptism makes Christians into a new creation in Christ. This chapter explains how the recreated person should now live.
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.
Many Jews who became Christians both suffered for their conversion and missed the comforts of their ancestral religion. The long letter to Hebrews aims to convince them to trust God, because the new way gives them more than they gave up. This passage appeals to their memory of Sarah and Abraham, who, walking only by faith, gave up much and believed God's promises.
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.
The website of Saint Charles Borromeo Parish in Picayune, Mississippi, U.S.A., says this of the origin of this feast: "The Feast of the Holy Family honors the family group of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. This feast developed only in the 17th century. Built on the Gospel accounts, this family is looked upon as an excellent domestic unit representing the ideal family life. To promote family life and build up devotion to the Holy Family, a feast was established for the Universal Church in 1921 (under Pope Benedict XV) ..."
With promotion of stable family life among its goals, the Catholic Church in the United States in the middle of the 20th century sponsored the creation of several series of "Faith and Freedom" books for use in parochial schools. In the readers (books to help teach reading) among them, the characters I remember are Mother, Father, David and Ann. I assumed David and Ann were my church's answer to the public schools' Dick and Jane. This photo comes from the Etsy.com site of bookmonster, who will be happy to sell you a copy of the book.
This page updated December 18, 2022