Wednesday 28 December 2011

The Flight, the Massacre, the Return - but to Where?

Today’s Feast of the Holy Innocents reminds me of my reluctance to dwell on this appalling episode in the infancy of Our Lord. So if you’ll excuse me, I won’t. I’ll talk round it instead, concentrating on other related verses.

There are elements of St Matthew’s account of this period in the life of the Holy Family which I find really intriguing. The following rather scattery reflections are very much of the “lounge bar of the local” variety; not at all a work of academic research; and they will be well known to you. But here goes.

St Luke (1:39) says that Zechariah and Elizabeth lived in a town in the hill country of Judea. This must have been close enough to Jerusalem to enable Zachariah to travel there fairly easily to carry out his priestly duties when his turn came round.

There is no more detail concerning the location of their town; we do not know how close it was to the Judean town of Bethlehem.

After Jesus’s birth in the stable in Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph appear to have stayed there for some time, rather than returning to Nazareth. The account of the visit of the Magi describes their dwelling not as a stable but as a house (Matthew 2:11), which implies that the census crowds had departed and they had found a place that was comfortable for the baby and convenient for Joseph to ply his trade as a carpenter.

Warned by the angel of Herod’s murderous plan, the little family fled to Egypt. Herod “sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under” (Matthew 2:16). At this point, therefore, Jesus was evidently up to two years of age.

This brings me back to Elizabeth and Zechariah. Was their Judean hill-country home “in the Bethlehem region”, and thus within the search and kill range of Herod’s troops? If not, my train of thought is irrelevant. But if it was within range, was John, who was six months older than Jesus, older than the age of two at the time of the massacre, and therefore old enough to escape the work of the killers?

If John was older than two years old, Jesus would have been quite a toddler by then, and He and His parents well settled into their life in Bethlehem. Did Mary and Joseph choose to live there because of the ancient prophecy (Matthew 2:4-6, quoting Micah 5:2)? Had the angel commanded Joseph (or both of them) to do so? Did they stay because it was Joseph’s ancestral home, and possibly (or probably) Mary’s too? In view of the circumstances of Jesus’s conception and birth - almost certainly unknown to everyone else except Elizabeth - did they decide to stay away from Nazareth for the sake of discretion? Did they choose Bethlehem because they could be near to Elizabeth and her own very special son?

And then there is the final detail in this little investigative and conjectural trail. It appears that when Herod had died and it was safe for the Holy Family to return, their intention was to settle once again in Bethlehem. At least, that is the way I read it, from Matthew 2:22-23: “But when [Joseph] heard that Archelaus reigned over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled. ‘He shall be called a Nazarene.’ ”

I’ve enjoyed gathering these threads together, and I hope you too will find them interesting.

Later: I’ve just thought of something else. If they had returned to live in Bethlehem, they would have been the only family, aside from a few others who might have migrated into the town, who had a male child within the age-range of the massacre. In the event of any subsequent attacks of royal paranoia, Jesus would have been very conspicuous.

Saturday 24 December 2011

Christmas wishes, and the genealogy of Our Lady

A very happy Christmas to all my readers!

Continuing the theme of genealogy from my last post, the following is well-known from our Scriptural readings, but I thought I would just dwell on it for a few minutes.

St Luke’s Gospel contains very interesting references to the ancestral connections of Our Lady, as well as those of St Joseph. I say connections, because we do not know the precise details, and family trees can be very complicated things, especially, for example, if step-fathers have been recorded as fathers.

Firstly, as I understand it the customary practice was to marry within one’s tribe or extended family. If this is so of Mary and Joseph, the Davidic ancestry which is recorded in regard to Joseph may well have been shared by Mary.

Secondly, further light is shed on Mary’s connections when we consider the details recorded about her kinswoman Elizabeth. Elizabeth was the wife of a priest, and was herself a descendant of the brother of Moses, the great Aaron, the first High Priest.

In themselves these details do not prove the direct priestly and royal ancestry of Mary, but it is wonderful to think that this young girl, leading her quiet life in Nazareth, far away from the hub of things, may well have inherited the blood of these two major figures of Jewish history and of God’s dealings with His chosen people.

Picture from, via Google Images

Thursday 22 December 2011

Raising up the Temple and the Altar of God

The differing genealogies of St Joseph are intriguing, and various theories have been put forward to account for the differences. It has even been suggested that one genealogy is in fact that of our Lady. But that seems far-fetched. It seems more likely that Joseph had more than one ancestral line, and these have simply been recorded as they existed. The most reasonable explanation is surely the inclusion in one or other version - or both - of collateral ancestors who married widowed sisters-in-law.

However, the reason for this post is a passage I came across in the Book of Ezra. Following the return from the Babylonian captivity, among those entrusted with rebuilding the Altar of God and the Temple of the Lord, was one Zerubbabel, the son of Shealtiel. Hello, I thought, as I read this; I know those names. The first thing that came to mind was the genealogies of St Joseph; and the names are there, in both Matthew’s and Luke’s versions.

There is an inclination to think of artisans as somewhat down the social scale; an idea which I find very annoying, and it is hard to believe that this was the case in ancient times. I think it adds a background to St Joseph which sheds light on his considerable stature as a Jew, in addition to all that we revere him for in relation to his loving care for Jesus and Mary. It is a great and a noble thing to have as one’s ancestors those who built up the Altar and the Temple, and to be entrusted with an even more exalted work of raising up.

Picture from st-joseph-medal-com, via Google Images

Monday 12 December 2011

A Bishop makes the case for the value of silence in church

It is a strange experience, I find, to make the Stations of the Cross after Sunday Mass. There is a tremendous noise of conversations and laughter. Many a time I have been praying in front of a Station, right next to a group of parishioners who are exchanging the latest news. I find it quite a challenge to my concentration, but I am getting better at it, and I make the effort to think generous thoughts of my neighbours. But how I long for the silence which used to be the norm in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, in the days of my youth!

And now, to my surprise and delight, the Sons of the Most Holy Redeemer, who live on one of the tiniest islands of the Orkneys, have made available to us this marvellous pastoral letter. It comes from the new Bishop of Aberdeen, the Right Reverend Dom Hugh Gilbert OSB, who until recently was the Abbot of Pluscarden.

If only these wise and inspiring words could filter down through the various dioceses – hierarchies, even – of the British Isles, and reach the churches up and down our countries where this message is sorely needed. It is not a matter of being a killjoy. It seems such an obvious contribution to the nourishment of our faith.