Home Homilies Michael Whelan SM, PhD Gospel – The Holy Family (31 December 2017)

Gospel – The Holy Family (31 December 2017)

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord.

When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him. (Luke 2:22 & 39-40 – NRSV) (Note: The longer text – Luke 2:22-40 – may be read.)

Introductory notes


One scholar writes of this passage in Luke: “The story of the presentation of Jesus in the temple (2:22–24) is complicated by the fact that three distinct motifs underlie the story; these have been assimilated to one another so closely that it is difficult to disentangle them.

The first element is the purification of the mother of a child. The opening part of the verse is modelled on Lv. 12:6 which ordains what is to happen ‘when the days of her purifying are completed, whether for a son or for a daughter’. After the birth of a son the mother was ceremonially unclean for 7 days until the circumcision, and then had to remain at home for a further 33 days; she then offered a sacrifice on the fortieth day at the Nicanor Gate on the east of the Court of Women (Lv. 12:1–8). …. The second element in the narrative is the offering of the child to the Lord in the temple. παρίστημι is frequently used in this transitive sense (e.g. Rom. 12:1; for the intransitive use see 1:19 note). The following verse shows that this offering was in accordance with the law requiring each first-born child (2:7) to be offered to God and a price paid for its redemption. Since, however, the child was brought to the temple, which was not necessary for the act of redemption, we should probably find a third element in the narrative, namely the offering of the child to God for his service, in the same way as Samuel was offered by his parents to God (1 Sa. 1:11, 22, 28; J. Weiss, 428; Schürmann, I, 122; Harvey, 232; Wilkinson, 15). Hence in the case of Jesus no redemption price was paid, for the child was not redeemed but rather consecrated to the service of God (B. Reicke, TDNT V, 840f.; pace Caird, 64; Morris, 87).” (I H Marshall, The Gospel of Luke: a commentary on the Greek text, Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1978, 117.)


their purification: There was no requirement for the purification of the husband/father. It is uncertain, therefore, why the text uses the word “their”. Joseph Fitzmyer writes: “The pron., “their,” must be understood to refer to Joseph and Mary because of the main verb anēgagon, “they (i.e. his parents) brought him up.” But since the time of Origen, commentators have tried to make “their” refer to Mary and Jesus (so, e.g. Creed, The Gospel, 39), despite the difficulty mentioned above. What has to be recognized is that Luke, not being a Palestinian Jewish Christian, is not accurately informed about this custom of the purification of a woman after childbirth. It is also an indication that his information is not derived from Mary’s recollections or memoirs—which might be presumed to have got the matter correct.” (Joseph A Fitzmyer, The Gospel according to Luke I–IX: introduction, translation, and notes (Vol. 28), New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008, 424.)

to present him to the Lord: This is perhaps the essence of the event, reminding us of Samuel. However, it is not without complications. Again, Fitzmyer writes: “This detail imitates the presentation of Samuel by his mother, Hannah, in 1 Sam 1:22–24. Yet Luke in the next verse relates Jesus’ presentation to the law about the firstborn. Jesus was so designated in 2:7, and the obligation of redeeming him lay upon the parents. In Exod 13:1–2 we read: ‘Yahweh said to Moses, “Consecrate to me every firstborn—whatever is the first to open every womb among the people of Israel, both human and animal, is mine”’. The implication of the consecration was a blessing on further offspring and well-being. See further Exod 13:11–16; 22:29b–30; Lev 27:26–27; Num 3:13; 8:17–18. The firstborn son was to be redeemed by a payment of five sanctuary shekels to a member of a priestly family (Num 3:47–48; 18:15–16), when the child was a month old. Luke makes no mention of the payment of the shekels to redeem the child. Instead he turns the act into a presentation of the child in the Jerusalem Temple, a custom about which nothing is said either in the OT or in the Mishnah. Such a custom for a firstborn son is simply unknown in Jewish tradition. Moreover, there is nothing either about the need of a purification of the firstborn son.” (Joseph A Fitzmyer, op cit, 425.)

The child grew and became strong: The same statement has already been used of John the Baptist – see Luke 1:80.

the favor of God was upon him: In Luke 1:30 we hear the Angel Gabriel tell Mary not to be afraid “for you have found favor with God”. Unlike John the Baptist, whom we meet in the desert, we meet Jesus growing up as a normal child within his Galilean family. Note the echoes of 1 Samuel 2:21 (“the boy Samuel grew up in the presence of the LORD”) and 2:26 (“Now the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the LORD and with the people”).


Culture is a very significant fact of life. Typically, we become aware of that only when we find ourselves outside our home culture or face to face with someone from a very different culture. We can understand culture as the process whereby a society or group develops, manifests and maintains a more or less comprehensive meaning structure for human existence – including religious practice and belief – and embodies this in symbols, rituals, customs, myths, roles, modes of dress and speech and a variety of other human expressions, institutions and behaviours. Culture functions like an unconscious social navigation system. It depends on signals such as facial expressions and manners. When the “normal” signals are not there or are misinterpreted we can be shocked – culture shocked.

Today’s Gospel – Luke 2:22-40 – speaks of some of the specific rituals and customs that were part of Jesus’ cultural and religious situation. We may find those rituals and customs quaint, even objectionable. A common mistake many make is to assume that the culture of one’s birth is the best culture or perhaps the only appropriate way to be human.

Jesus was born into a specific culture with its own religious practices and beliefs. This fact is important for at least two reasons. Firstly, the Incarnation is – among other things – a cultural event. It is, in that sense, a finite and definite reality. We must understand the finitude and definiteness of that reality in order to get to the infinitude and universality of the Christ Event. We must also understand the paradox that, precisely because Jesus was a cultural being, He became available to everyone. William Lynch SJ (1908-1987) writes: “We must go through the finite, the limited, the definite, omitting none of it lest we omit some of the potency of being-in-the-flesh.” (William Lynch, Christ and Apollo: The Dimensions of the Literary Imagination, University of Notre Dame, 1975, 7.) It is through the finite that we enter the infinite. There is no other way. As Lynch indicates, Jesus went “through” it, “omitting none of it”, experiencing the full “potency of being-in-the flesh”. Which brings us to the second reason culture is so important.

Jesus’ ultimate grounding, his source of identity and security, is the Kingdom of God. He is therefore able to affirm his culture and its limits. He is transcultural. As such, Jesus is an agent of transformation within his culture. Through Him, with Him and in Him, we are called and enabled to make the same journey.

Our witness to Him demands this journey. Pope Paul VI knew this well when he linked the challenge of evangelization to culture: “What matters is to evangelize man’s culture and cultures …. always taking the person as one’s starting-point and always coming back to the relationships of people among themselves and with God” (Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975), #20).