Perhaps a benefit this week might be to sort out the many options for the readings. In every slot, including the Alleluia verse, an alternative is available. In the instances of the Gospel and the second reading from Colossians, the alternative is a shorter version of the same reading. But in addition an alternative to the reading from Colossians is offered. The traditional readings are Sirach 3, Psalm 128, Colossians 3 and Luke 2.
Alternative readings are from Genesis, Psalm 105 and Hebrews. Worth noting is the consistent theme in the second set: the promise to Abraham and the family of Israel. The original set features biblical images of the ideal family. Sirach is a late book of proverbial wisdom, condensing many of the conventional pious views of the time.
Psalm 128 gives a classic image of the pious family, with pleasant images of the vine and olive trees. The reading from Colossians pictures the first-century family, one of hierarchical order of wives and husbands, father and children, slave and masters—softened by a dose of Christian service. (This is an application of Christian teaching to the customs of the time. Some object that it is taken as a biblical model for today, when it is actually an application of Christian teaching to a cultural practice of old.) The shorter version leaves out the part about wives and husbands, fathers and children. The alternative set reveals a consistent theme.
The reading from Genesis concerns the covenant with—or promise to—Abraham. The promise to Abraham is three-fold—that he will have numerous descendants, that they will inherit the land in which he sojourns, and that all nations will be blessed in his name. Appended to the promise in the selection for today is another passage, this one from Genesis 21: the birth of Isaac. The passage as a whole takes the narrow view, concerning itself with the immediate offspring of Abraham, Isaac. But the promise to Abraham is greater, as it foresees the entire nation. The promise of descendants is first fulfilled in Isaac, but that is severely tested in the command to sacrifice Isaac. Yet Abraham’s faith carries him through, and Isaac is spared, and Abraham becomes the ancestor of the family of Israel. Psalm 105, the response, is a hymn of thanksgiving for the Abraham covenant. Its more proximate theme is the return to the land—fulfilling one of the terms of the covenant. But its larger context is gratitude for the family of Israel, tracing its heritage to the Abrahamic covenant. Paul will pick up on the covenant theme and affirm that all who have faith are included among the children of Abraham.
In Galatians 3-4 he first makes the case. But Romans 4 elaborates it more fully. The letter to the Hebrews is the alternative second reading. Paul did not write Hebrews, but it continues his emphasis. In the part quoted this week the author is listing examples of faith from the Old Testament. The primary example is Abraham, who gets the best coverage. However, the passage mentions Isaac as well.
The rest of the chapter will invoke other examples. In this strand, then, the feast of the Holy Family is not presented so much as a model for today’s families, as it is seen as the fulfillment of the promises of the past. Instead, the Holy Family is a concrete fulfillment of the chosen people, the family of God’s people. In this way, the alternative readings provide another introduction to the Gospel reading about presentation in the temple. For reflection: Two strands thread through the readings today. Which speak best to you?
Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.