Redeeming Family Life
Redeeming Family Life

Redeeming Family Life

The Feast of the Holy Family. Fr Andrew Brookes ponders the significance of what did and what did not happen when Christ was presented in the temple.

In today’s Gospel, Mary and Joseph, as devout Jews, set out to do what is required of them by Jewish Law in regard to Mary’s firstborn child. Under Jewish Law, they would be expected to redeem the child and arrange for the mother to be purified after 40 days. Luke records that two turtle doves are offered which covered the purification of Mary after the process of giving birth. But the payment of 5 shekels to redeem Jesus is not made.

Why was this normally paid? Fundamentally, in Jewish thinking all life comes from God and belongs to God. This found expression in the firstborn of each human or animal mother being dedicated to God and given over to God. If not redeemed, first born animals were given over to God in the irrevocable form of sacrifice. Thus they could not be taken back by humans for other use. Firstborn humans were initially given over to serve God and his cult in a complete way of life. After most of the Jewish tribes created and worshipped the idol of the golden calf, only the Levites were allowed to be dedicated for priestly service. The firstborn of the other tribes had to be redeemed or bought back. Redemption had a wider use in ancient society. Slaves could also be redeemed or bought back and so enter the service of another owner who is the Redeemer or be set free.

The firstborn of the tribe of Levi belonged to the Lord for service of the religious cult of Israel. The firstborn of other tribes had to be bought back so as to be available for other roles in family, economic and public life. If, though it was probably rare, the parents wished to dedicate the child to God for divine service then they did not redeem him. He is given over to the Lord – like the Levites. The child would be presented in the temple and in some spiritual sense (at least) was left there.

What is the significance of Jesus not be redeemed? Jesus was considered a member of the tribe of David and so was liable for redemption. Therefore, it indicates he was in a significant sense and intentional way being given over to God for service. What might have prompted Mary and Joseph to take this unusual step? The various words spoken about him at the annunciation to Mary and the annunciation to Joseph and at his birth by angels all point to the child being specially chosen by God to serve his purposes. His very conception points to divine intervention and involvement in this human coming to exist at all. He is from God in a special way as well as for God. He is not theirs in the normal way. They wanted to acknowledge this and gave him over to God so God’s purposes can be achieved.

They are rewarded with further insight through Simeon. Jesus is truly the glory of Israel. The temple is the glory of Israel and Jesus is the true temple, that body in which God truly and now permanently and fully dwells. He will enlighten all the nations, guiding them to the true God. His mission will not be without resistance which will divide people and bring about falling and rising of many even among the Jews, a sort of judgement and which will cause Mary to suffer and be tested too. Being dedicated to God does not guarantee an easy life. But in that rejection, the unredeemed son of Mary becomes the Redeemer of all humanity, buying us back, by the offering of divine blood, an offering of immeasurable value, from slavery to sin to the freedom of the children of God, empowered to live holy lives inspired by grace, ourselves making free offerings of ourselves to God.

Let us focus again on this offering of Jesus by Mary and Joseph for it is something we can enter into, and, as parents, do for our children. It is making space. It realises life is a gift from God. Such dedication puts God at the centre. It makes even human reproduction and the existence of children and ambition for them subservient to God and his will. It establishes God’s lordship in our family life, orders things properly and allows God to more easily order the life and future of our children. It is us living our call as priestly people. Animated by faith and generosity, it gives space and freedom for God to act. Let parents then encourage children as they grow up to pray to find, know and do God’s will – and as adults let us all do the same. God’s plans are the best ones for us!

Let us do all this with faith and generosity. The first reading shows how Abraham put his own faith in God, and then later offered Isaac, the child promised to him as heir and miraculously conceived of a barren and old Sarah, to God. In effect his offering is seen as a sacrifice unto death in light of the resurrection. Isaac went along with this, co-operating in this most probably as an adult. Therefore, such faith-filled dedication of ourselves and our children to God can work and produce God-centred and fruitful lives and families.

Will parents among us do that too? Our children are not conceived virginally but God is involved in the creation of each person, whatever the circumstances, and whatever motivation, or lack of motivation, parents have at the time. Families are not entirely self-contained units. Nor are our children our playthings or possessions. By baptism, we are all born from above too. So let us all intentionally be given over to God and open to God. Let us earnestly pray that God may guide our children and guide their parents. The plan of God for their lives, and whatever vocation that includes, is truly the best one, the one that will bring most fulfilment and happiness. It will entail the cross for sure, but also resurrection and eternal life that starts now and endures forever.

Such offering of our children and ourselves to God might seem stark, even brutal and loveless. But, in reality, it is to live like Mary, Joseph and Jesus and it is to live very eucharistically, as a priestly people, centred on Jesus’ death and resurrection and nourished and empowered by it. What better way is there for families to live and be holy?!

Readings: Genesis 15:1-6,21:1-3 | Hebrews 11:8,11-12,17-19 | Luke 2:22-40

Image: detail from a mosaic at Westminster Cathedral portraying the Presentation of the Lord in the temple, photographed by Fr Lawrence Lew OP

Fr. Andrew Brookes works in the Parish of Our Lady of the Rosary and St Dominic, London.


Comments (4)

  • Fredrick Sunjo

    I find it very educative. I have learned more about Christ and the Jewish tradition. God bless you Rev.

  • Catherine

    Thank you Father brookes. I found this instructive and inspiring too.

  • Anthony Phillips

    Thank you, fr Andrew, your insights into the significance of the presentation in the temple are helpful and informative.

  • Margaret Connolly

    Fascinating comment about the shekels. Didn’t know this! Thanks, Father Andrew, and Happy New Year to you and all the Dominican family 😀


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