Sunday in the Octave of Christmas / Confirmation / Latin
31 December 2017
Today in the Novus Ordo is the Feast of the Holy Family. In this form of the Mass we will celebrate it next week. Today for us is the Sunday in the Octave, the eight-day celebration, of Christmas. But as it turns out the Gospels are the same, the story of Christ’s presentation in the temple and the beautiful testimonies of the aged prophet Simeon and prophetess Anna, who see in the infant Jesus the fulfillment of the hopes and longings of Israel. He is, in the words of Simeon’s song, a Light to lighten the gentiles and the glory of God’s people Israel.
The focus on the Holy Family is just that, a focus on the Holy Family. At the center of today’s readings is the reminder that God has brought salvation to the world in the midst of a family. That is the first and most important message. It is an essential part of the reality of the incarnation. Jesus is born of a woman, born under the law, as the Epistle reminds us. He is truly made man – not in some generic way but in the real community of God’s elect people and in a family.
But it would be a mistake to see today’s readings in either form of the Mass as principally a commentary on our families. As with every Sunday and holy day, indeed as with every Mass including weddings and funerals, the focus is on Jesus Christ. We err when we make it all about us or simply see the day or the season as a good reminder about solid family life and how to treat each other. That is not wrong, but we are reminded today that at the center of our family life and individual life there must be Jesus, whose birth we celebrate. When we get that right – as whenever we get our priorities right – things go much better.
To be sure, the importance of the family is set before us in a powerful way by the biblical stories we encounter at Christmas. The story of salvation cannot be told except by reference to a family. The fine Catholic thinker Mary Eberstadt has pointed out that one of the struggles in communicating the Gospel these days is that the story begins in a family and we live in a world where family is in crisis, where marriage is demeaned and avoided, and where many have redefined family so radically as to empty the word of any meaning.
Therefore, faithful seriousness about the family, about marriage and about bringing children into the world is one of the ways we as Christians, regardless of our marital status or stage of life, are called to bear witness, to heal the world, and to do our part in reconstructing a crumbling society. Witness to the beauty of the family and of children is part of our vocation as Christians.
This is underscored by the example of Mary and Joseph in today’s Gospel. They are faithful Jewish parents who honor and keep God’s law by bringing their Son to the temple when Mary comes to undergo the obligatory purification after childbirth. In this they are a model for all parents – surely their example comes to expression in those of you have presented your children today for confirmation. But what the Evangelist Luke is really driving home is the message that in Jesus the Law is being fulfilled; no detail is overlooked, as was also revealed when he was circumcised and named on the eighth day in accordance with the Law of Israel, an event we celebrate in tomorrow’s Mass. The model for parents flows not just from the good example of Mary and Joseph; it flows from the Gospel, the good news that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and the prophets, that he is the hope of Israel and of the world. We bring our children to him.
And because the world resists the truth of Christ – as it resists the truth of the family, and so much other truth – he will be, as Simeon warns Mary, a sign to be spoken against. Moreover, her heart will be pierced with a sword when she undergoes the worst thing imaginable for a mother: watching the suffering and death of her child. The darkness, John’s Gospel reminds us, is deep and powerful, but it will not overcome the light of Christ.
And so we have recourse to the Sacraments. Of course, today brings a special emphasis on confirmation.
We celebrate this sacrament and all the sacraments because we wish to walk in the light of the truth.
We do so because we know that the darkness is real and that we need to be strengthened to resist it. The very word confirmation implies strengthening – in simple English firming up.
We do so because the Christian life is a sign of contradiction, like Jesus himself. We contradict the sin, the madness, the hatred, and the folly that surround us. And they fight back – that’s why this rite includes the tap on the cheek following the anointing. It is a reminder of persecution. The tap comes with the words “Pax tecum” – “peace be with you” – and there is no irony, no joking in that. The world will strike us, but we have the peace that passes all understanding because we know Christ and have received the Spirit, who endows us with faith hope and love.
And so we celebrate today your confirmations. Tomorrow you and all of us will once again be dropped behind enemy lines, there to fight the good fight of faith, but confident that the Spirit of God is with us.
You who were confirmed today are young, but today’s Gospel introduced us to those two very old people, Anna and Simeon, in the temple. There they had often come and waited and prayed to see the revelation of God’s Messiah. And their prayers and hopes were fulfilled.
We too have seen Jesus – in the manger, on the cross, and here in our midst in the celebration of the Mass. The eyes of faith see clearly.
Strengthened by the Sacraments, may we be as faithful as they were, holding on to the light and truth of Christ, to the goodness and wonder to which God calls us, and finally to inherit the Kingdom where the infant Christ now rules as Lord of all and Savior of the world.