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In the Shade?

In my childhood—a while back, admittedly—I looked forward every year to the big New Year’s Eve party my parents had. A number of times, looking for something to do, I wrote and dittoed off a tiny newspaper for the entertainment of everyone in attendance! To my mind that party came second only to Christmas!

It is as if the Church has something besides chronology in mind when it puts this reading right after Christmas.

But of course, Christmas was the big deal. It was the main holiday—the presents, the Christmas village my mother constructed each year on the mantel, and increasingly for me, the birth of the Christ child.

These holidays always had and have a big footprint, even during the pandemic. That is why I wonder about placing the feast of the Holy Family between them. Won’t family be put into the shade, even if the shopping and decorating have to be curtailed this year, if people adhere to Covid 19 cautions.

How can we make room for Holy Family Sunday, tired or not, curtailed or not? Maybe by looking at what we would miss if we ignored this feast, especially the Gospel.

First, what this “feast” for? The Presentation in the Temple, portrayed in our Gospel, will be celebrated on February 2nd, using exactly the same Gospel reading. Thus the “historical” significance of this event is reiterated later when it can have full significance. It is as if the Church has something besides chronology in mind when it puts this reading right after Christmas.

What would that be? The spiritual content of this Mass.*

Some highlights:

1. This Sunday contains one of the few descriptions of the Holy Family in all scripture. Their appearance here emphasizes how important family care is for children and for all human beings. Mary and Joseph seem hesitant but have exquisite care for the baby Jesus.

2. Look at the important words of Simeon, which interpret the Nativity for us, though they may not seem to:

Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace,
according to your word,
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you prepared in sight of all the peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and glory for your people Israel.

Obviously these words refer to the baby born just a few days ago.
They are like using an underliner on the Christmas story. The child brings peace; he is a fulfillment of the Lord’s word that a Messiah would come; he is an entrance of the Word into the whole world, not just to part of it: he is sent to Gentiles as well as to Israel; he is a revelation and he is a glory. Don’t we need this kind of interpretation? Why ignore it?

3. There is not only Simeon, but also Anna. We are told she had done Advent fasting and prayer in the temple until she was 84 years old! At last, poignantly, she begins to speak about the child, addressing everyone who had been awaiting redemption. Isn’t she a symbol of the Advent we have just been through: patient waiting and learning?

These are only three of the quiet beauties found in the Gospel this Sunday. They celebrate family, they bring out spiritual qualities of the birth of Our Lord.

What if we let this Sunday quietly unpack Christmas and our lives for us?

John Foley, SJ
 * A Synod convoked by Pope Francis has put out its conclusions on the subject of family. It specifically recognizes human growth and feelings within marriage. In a time when so many have turned away from this felt and formal union, how important is such a reconsideration by the Church.

You are invited to email a note to the author of this reflection:
Fr. John Foley, SJ

Fr. John Foley, SJ, is a composer and scholar at Saint Louis University.
Art by Martin Erspamer, OSB
from Religious Clip Art for the Liturgical Year (A, B, and C). This art may be reproduced only by parishes who purchase the collection in book or CD-ROM form. For more information go