THE FIRST CHRISTMAS
AND THE FIRST FAMILY – PART IV
I. Forty days after Jesus
was born, His parents brought Him to be offered to God in the Temple.
This presentation involves a combination of two Jewish rites.
1. First, according
to the law given originally on Mount Sinai, the first-born son of a
couple must be consecrated to God and "redeemed." See Ex.
13:2, 11-15. He would be "redeemed" by an offering of five
shekels, which equaled about a week's pay. See Num. 11:16.
This consecration and redemption was both a reflection of the slaughter
of the first born in Egypt before the Exodus and recognition that children
are a gift of God and must be offered back to Him.
- Second, after childbirth,
a woman was considered ritually unclean. (This uncleanness had
nothing to do with guilt; it was a ritual matter.) Therefore,
forty days after giving birth to a boy, or eighty days for a girl, a
woman would be ritually purified and give an offering of a dove or pigeon
and a sheep for a priest to sacrifice. For poorer people, the
offering was reduced to two doves or pigeons. See Lev. 12:2-8.
- Despite the fact
that they are by rights free of the Mosaic Law, Mary and Joseph make
this offering in the Temple, indicating a support of the ritual law
for the few decades it has left before fulfillment. Cf. Matt.17:22-27.
- The fact that they
offered two turtledoves (the shekel offering is omitted, or perhaps
was combined with the turtledoves) indicates that they were of modest
means. The dove was a symbol of beauty, especially in the eyes,
see Song of Songs 2:10, 14, 4:1, 5:12, of sorrow, see Is. 38:14, 59:11,
and of innocence, see Matt. 16:10. Jesus would show forth the
glory of heaven, precisely by His sorrowful sacrifice of His innocent
- This presentation
is the first fulfillment of the prophesies that the Lord would return
to His Temple. Almost six hundred years earlier, Ezekiel spoke
of the glory of the Lord leaving the Temple because of the people's
sins. However, he and other prophets spoke of the day when the
Lord would return to His temple. Ez. 10:18-23, 43:1-9; Mal. 3:1-2;
see also Is. 62:11; Zech. 9:9. These prophecies would be again
fulfilled in glory as Jesus entered Jerusalem in glory on Palm Sunday.
See Matt. 21:4-11; Mark 11:1-11; Luke 18:28-40.
- The text then switches
over to Simeon, the representative of prophesy, returned one last time.
1. The name Simeon
means "God has heard," a fitting reference to the promise made to
Israel, the fulfillment of which Simeon will see. There is perhaps
a cross reference to the first message that Gabriel gave to Zechariah,
"Your prayer has been heard." Luke 1:13.
a. The prophet
Isaiah had promised consolation to Israel, see Is. 40:1, 66:12-14, and
Simeon cared deeply about the prophesies.
b. The Holy Spirit
comes to him to guide him and give him the promise that the long awaited
Messiah was to be born. The Holy Spirit had guided prophets and
kings and the just in general before, see, e.g., Is. 61:1-2, 62:11 (guiding
prophets); 1 Sam. 10:10, 16:13; Is. 11:2-9 (coming upon kings); Ps.
51:13; Wis. 1:15, 9:17 (being with the just. The prophets spoke
of a day when the Holy Spirit would come upon all of God's people.
See, e.g., Num. 11:29 (Moses making this prayer); Ez. 36:26, 37:4; Joel
2:28-29 (the spirit coming to all peoples in the last days.) Simeon
here fulfills the roles of prophet and just man, and the Spirit guiding
him is a first promise of the Spirit that will be poured forth upon
all the faithful at Pentecost.
a. Simeon declares
that he able to go (probably meaning die) in peace. The Old Testament
figures did not fully die in peace, for there was always something that
they awaited. For example, Moses died before he could enter the
Promised Land. Thus, by seeing the Savior, this quiet servant
of God is being given a gift that the great figures of old awaited.
See Luke 10:24; 1 Peter 1:10-12.
- Even those few
prophets who could see the glory of God trembled at His presence.
See, e.g., Isaiah 6:1; Daniel 7:28, 8:27. The ability to welcome
God as a child would be above anything the Chosen People would expect.
b. Simeon reflects
true patriotism, seeing the glory of his own people fulfilled by her
gifts to all nations. He builds upon the prophesies of all nations
coming to Jerusalem and receiving the presence of God promised to His
People. See Isaiah 2:1, 42:6, 49:7, 66:22; Ps. 87:4ff.n
Isaiah had spoken many times of God's salvation being seen as the
light to all nations, and those prophesies are now being fulfilled.
See, e.g., Is. 40:5, 42:6, 49:6, 52:9-10.
c. This prayer
forms part of the Night Prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours, which prayed
every day by all priests, deacons, and consecrated religious brothers
and sisters, as well as many of the laity.
- Mary and Joseph
are astonished at Simeon's words. Even though Mary is immaculate
and Joseph just, they still grow in understanding over the course of
- Simeon then gives
Mary prophesies about Jesus and herself.
a. He says that
Jesus will be the rise and fall of many in Israel. He will raise
those looking for salvation, but for those who reject it, the occasion
will bring about judgment. See, e.g., John 3:16-21. Later,
Jesus would speak of the Beatitudes for those who are least in the world
and the woes for those who are self-satisfied. Contrast Matt.
5:3-12: Luke 6:20-23 with Matt. 23:13-36; Luke 6:24-26.
b. There will
be no final neutrality with Jesus. Early on, anyone who is not
against Jesus can be thought of as for Him. See Luke. However,
as time goes on, anyone not for Jesus is against Him. See Luke
9:50, 11:23. The one who is crucial to redemption will be as a
rejected stone, which becomes the cornerstone (or capstone) holding
everything else together. See Matt. 21:42; Ps. 118:22. The
first letter of Peter will likewise speak of Jesus as both the capstone
of salvation for those willing to accept Him, and as the stone that
others stumble over. See 1 Pet. 2:8.
- Simeon also speaks
of the sword piercing Mary's heart, for she will join with the sufferings
of Christ and thus become our most powerful intercessor other than Himself.
This very sorrow would bring about the revelation of what is really
in people's heart. The prophets and later the letter to the
Hebrews and the Book of Revelation would speak of the sword of the Lord
as separating the good from the evil and bringing about . See
Is. 66:16-17; Ez. 21:13-22; Heb. 4:12; Rev. 1:16. According to
St. Ambrose, Mary is an image of the Church, and the sword an image
of the persecutions that the Church will face; such sorrows reveal whether
a person's faith is real or not. See St. Thomas Aquinas,
Commentary on the Gospel According to Matthew, Cantena Aurea 2:36.
1. There had not
been a prophet in Israel for over 400 years. Thus, describing her as
a prophet indicates that she is bringing back the glorious age of prophesy
before the Messianic era will begin. There had also been only
a few female prophetess in the Old Testament: Miriam (Moses' sister),
Deborah, Huldah, Isaiah's unnamed wife, and Noadish. See Ex.
15:20, Judges 4:4; 2 Kings 22:14; Is. 8:3; Neh. 6:14.
- The biographical
details for her make her an inspiration to other people who struggle
in the world.
- She had been married
only eight years, and had been a widow ever since. Normally, young
widows would remarry, and so her life begins to suggest a notion of
consecrated single life.
- She had been waiting
from the time her husband died (perhaps when she was about 26) until
she was 84. She represents the patience of the faithful
through many years, a patience rewarded with great joy.
- She was from the
tribe of Ashur. That tribe, whose land was along the Mediterranean
Coast in the far north of the Promised Land, had not seemingly done
very much. There were early prophesies of its prosperity shown
forth to other peoples. See Gen. 49:20; Duet. 33:24-25.
However, they were exiled with the rest of the Northern Kingdom when
the Assyrians had invaded in 723 B.C.; and the prophesies had seemed
to end. But here, one last member of the tribe returns to glorify
God and, with the shepherds, be among the first evangelists of the Gospel.
- Anna is also paired
with Simeon, as many men and women are paired together in the Gospel
according to Luke: (1) Zechariah and Elizabeth as the representatives
of the transfer from the Old Covenant to the New; (2) Namaan and the
widow of Zerephatha as foreigners who received God's providence when
His own people did not, see Luke 4:25-28; (3) the centurion of Capernaum
and the widow of Nain as people whose children Christ raised, see Luke
7:1-17; (4) Simon the leper and the sinful woman as people whom Christ
restores, see Luke 7:36-40; (5) the women at the tomb and the disciples
on the way to Emmaus as witnesses to the Resurrection, see Luke 23:55-24:35.
F. The witness of
Simeon and Anna would have prepared the way for the magi by giving the
people of Jerusalem a first promise of the Messiah, which would then
be confirmed by the message that the magi brought.
II. When the magi returned
without speaking to Herod, that king then tried to kill Jesus through
the slaughter of the innocents.
- Herod, so called
the Great, was a very powerful ruler of the area, but also very violent,
having put to death three of his sons and one of his wives. He
was by this time in his 60s, but still concerned above all else about
establishing his family as the dynasty to rule over the area.
- Now for the
second time, an angel appears to Joseph, warning him about King Herod
and instructing him to take the Holy Family into Egypt.
1. At that time,
there were many Jews living outside of Israel was a particularly common
location for them. Thus, the Book of Wisdom, which appears to
have been written within the 120 years before Jesus, was also apparently
written in Egypt and in particular in Alexandria. Likewise, the
Septuagint, which was the most commonly used Greek translation of the
Hebrew Scriptures was apparently written in Alexandria about 250 B.C.
- In addition, the
Holy Family was now making the reverse of the Exodus, returning again
to Egypt. Thus, Jesus, the Son of God from all ages, would replicate,
now in holiness and perfection, what Israel, the people whom God adopted
as sons, had done very imperfectly and sinfully before. In addition,
Jesus' "exodus" from Egypt, which is often seem as a symbol of
slavery to sin, would prepare for our exodus from such slavery.
See Rom. 6:6-7; 1 Cor. 10:1-4.
- The prophesy of
Hosea that Matthew quotes speaks of Israel's ingratitude at God's
providence. Jesus will here make up for that ingratitude.
- The prophesy goes
on to speak about how, after God has punished His people, He will call
them back out of Egypt and the other lands to which they have been exiled.
See Hos. 11:8-11. Jesus will take on this punishment and Himself
be the first promise of that return.
- Joseph presumably
provided for the Holy Family there through his work as a carpenter (tektos),
which meant a person who worked with wood or stone. However, the
gold of the magi would presumably have helped greatly as well.
- Meanwhile, the delay
while Herod was waiting for the magi gave the Holy Family time to escape.
Then Herod, consistent with his character, decided to get rid of whom
he thought of as a rival by having all of the boys in Bethlehem under
the age of two slaughtered.
1. Because Bethlehem
was a town of about 500, with perhaps another 500 people living nearby,
the slaughter would have been of about 20-30 boys. Because Herod
had done such things before, it would be condemned, but would no longer
stand out in secular news. For example, when he first became
king, he had most of the Sanhedrin, the people who governed in Jerusalem,
killed. Later, he had 300 of the members of his court killed at
once. When Herod was dying, he gave an order, never carried out,
that the several hundred leading citizens whom he had imprisoned by
slaughtered on the day of his death so that someone would mourn on that
- St. Matthew associates
the slaughter of the innocents with the mourning of Rachel over her
children, as described by Jeremiah.
- Rachel, the beloved
wife of Jacob, was the mother of Joseph and Benjamin. She died
while giving birth to Benjamin and thus her original sorrow was by her
death, rather than that of her children. See Gen. 36:16-20.
She was buried in Ephrathah, which would later become Bethlehem.
- About 1200 years
later, the people of the southern kingdom were exiled by Nebuchadnezzar,
the king of Babylon. when he conquered Jerusalem. He apparently
gathered them near an area called Ramah to take them off to Babylon.
And so the prophet Jeremiah portrays Rachel of old now mourning that
her people, including the tribe of Benjamin, will be sent off to a faraway
land. See Jer. 31:15.
- However, there is
a note of hope here, for the next passage in Jeremiah speaks of the
return of the people to their own land. See Jer. 31:16-17.
Thus, there is a note of promise as well for the children who are killed,
that they will be reunited with their parents.
3. This event
is also a reflect of the attempt by Pharaoh to kill all of the newborn
boys of the Hebrews in order to destroy that people. See Ex. 1:15-22.
(The girls would have been married off to Egyptian men and thus become
Egyptian, or so the Pharaoh thought.) One implication is
that God would raise up from this slaughter a new savior; the culture
of death would itself die.
4. The Church
has historically honored the Holy Innocents as saints, dying for the
faith, even though they did not understand it. They had what was
analogous to baptism through the sorrow of their parents. See
The Gospel According to Matthew, Navarre Bible fn. to ch. 2, verses
- After the death
of King Herod, Joseph brings the Holy Family back to the Promised Land,
but here back north to Nazareth.
1. King Herod
died in 4 B.C. after a very painful disease. According to Eusebius,
the court historian of the Emperor Constantine, the disease set in shortly
after the killing of the innocents See Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History
Book I, ch. 8, sections 4-5.
- In the last of his
six wills, Herod had his kingdom split among his three favored
surviving sons: (1) about half of his kingdom (Judea, Samaria and the
outlying areas) was left to Archeleus; (2) Galilee to the north and
Perea to the south-east was left to Herod Antipas; and (3) the areas
to the northwest were left to Philip.
- Archeleus, because
he was the main heir, asked Augustus Caesar to appoint him a king.
However, Augustus, rightfully doubtful of him, said that he would be
an ethnarch (a half-king) and would be appointed king if things worked
out. They did not, and Archeleus was such a violent and incompetent
ethnarch that Augustus removed him in 6 A.D. and the Romans began appointing
governors over Judea and Samaria.
- Herod Antipas and
Phillip became tetrarchs (quarter kings.) Later Phillip would
marry Herodias, but Herod Antipas persuaded her to leave him and marry
himself, Herod. That would set up the conflict with John the Baptist.
- St. Joseph, realizing
early on that Archeleus was a very violent ruler, headed back to Mary's
hometown of Nazareth, where he had also presumably lived for sometime.
- St. Matthew
then uses this occasion to say that Jesus thus fulfilled the prophesy,
"He shall be called a Nazarene." The most likely explanation
is that the prophet Isaiah has said of the future king, "A shoot shall
sprout from the stump of Jesse, and a branch (nezer) shall grow out
of its roots." Is 11:1. Jesus would be the nezer (Nazarine)
who would restore the line of David, the line of kings, now cut down
for almost 600 years since the Exile. Nazar is also close to the
Jewish word for "holy' and so the reference may also have been to
the Holy One to come in general. See St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary
on Matthew, Cantena Aurea, commentary on 2:21-23. It is also possible
that, because Nazareth was a town that people often despised as
being at the same time too backward and also too open to pagans, the
fact that Jesus was called a Nazarene may also have been a reference
to the fact that He would be despised because of His origin. See,
e.g., John 1:46; Acts 24:5.
III. Jesus' childhood, generally
in Nazareth, consecrated seemingly ordinary human life.
- As Pope Paul VI
pointed out in a homily on the Feast of the Holy Family, each family
takes lessons in prayer, work, education, mutual sacrifice, etc. from
the Holy Family. Part of this homily is recorded in the
Office of Readings of the Liturgy of the Hours for the Feast of the
- Most of what the
Holy Family did was not recorded, perhaps in part so that every family
could see their lives (which are also generally not recorded) as reflecting
that of the Holy Family.
- The town of Nazareth
was itself fairly small, perhaps about 200 people. However, because
it lay along a common north-south road, many travelers would have passed
by, giving its residents a feel for people all around the Roman Empire.
That connection with the pagan world is perhaps one reason why Nazareth
may have been looked down upon by other Jews.
- From Nazareth, it
was also not a long journey to the majestic Mount Hermon, honored by
the Jews and others as a mystical site. Likewise, it would not
be a long journey to journey up hills that overlook the Mediterranean
Sea to the west or the Sea of Galilee to the southeast. Fathers
and sons would frequently go on such short journeys.
- Under Herod Antipas,
Galilee was at least more at peace than the regions to the south and
- Joseph worked as
a carpenter, i.e. a worker of wood and stone (there was much soft stone
in that area, and houses were frequently carves into hills.) He may
well have worked on the new buildings being established in nearby Sepphoria,
which Herod Antipas made his new capital. Joseph would have taught
Jesus the craft from an early age.
- Religious education
took place both at the home and at the synagogue on the Sabbath as the
rabbi gave instruction to all of the local people. Although Jesus
as God knew all things, and had the Beatific Vision even as man, he
would still have learned things in His human nature. Thus Luke
says that Jesus grew, physically, mentally, and in favor with the people.
See Luke 2:40, 52.
- The people of the
villages would work for some hours during the daylight, six days a week.
They then got together every evening in separate groups (men and women)
to discuss current events. Those gatherings would usually be followed
by stories, songs, debates, etc. Most people did not know how
to read or write, but they were in their way very cultures.
- It was customary
(although probably not always possible) for families to go to Jerusalem
three times a year, for the feasts of Passover, the Feast of Weeks(Pentecost)
and the Feast of Booths. See Exod. 23:14-17, Duet. 16:1-17.
- The Finding in the
Temple is the one event of Jesus' life after the age of 2 that the
A. When Jesus was
12, it would have been a year before the bar mitzvah, in which he would
assume the full religious duties of a Jew. Thus, this event occurs
in what would be in Jewish thought the threshold of manhood.
B. The event once
again emphasizes that the Holy Family was upholding the Jewish ritual
law for the years it had remaining. Jesus would change things,
but only in the right time. See Catechism 583.
- Because travel was
generally dangerous, people tended to travel in very large groups, especially
of relatives. There could be a couple of hundred people in a group.
- In addition, the
men and women usually travelled in different groups, often moving at
different speeds. The groups would then get together at night.
- The young boys would
be in the women's group, with the older boys in the men's group.
At the age of twelve, Jesus could be in either group. As a result,
both Mary and Joseph probably thought that he was in the other group.
- During the Passover,
there would be up to a million pilgrims in and around Jerusalem.
They would camp in the valley surrounding the city. '
- Even after the Passover,
the city would probably still be filled with people who had stayed behind,
or even foreigners who were curious. As a result, it would be
very difficult to find anyone there
- Rabbis would teach
and hold discussions in the courtyard of the Temple. Jesus, both
because He was the Messiah, and also because He was even naturally an
intelligent and wise youth, was drawn to these discussions.
- The misunderstanding
between Jesus and His parents shows that both of them still were learning
in their way. Jesus may not have fully understood His parents'
expectations, and they still did not fully comprehend His calling.
- Here, and in
Luke 1:19, Mary's contemplation, her careful consideration and growth
in knowledge, becomes clear.
- The episode ends
with Jesus beginning to reveal who He is by saying that He must be in
His Father's house. Generally, Jews would refer to God and their
Father collectively. But to refer to God as His Father personally
begins to give the idea to the Holy Family and the reader about who
- The event then describes
the rest of Jesus' youth by saying that He was obedient to His parents
in Nazareth. Even though He had complete authority as God and
also, even in His human nature, as the Messiah, He showed His willing
to sacrifice early on by this obedience to a human authority.