Weekly HomilyArchives

Friday, December 21, 2007

“An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt.’” (Matthew 2:13)

“SOUL-SURFING” – December 30, 2007
The Holy Family
(Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23)
Fr. Robert deLeon, CSC

The church’s liturgical calendar is not arranged in a strict chronology. The feasts of the Christmas season all relate to the early life of Jesus, but the scriptures we read moving from feast to feast are not meant to be seen as a daily travelogue. Thus, we jump from Bethlehem’s manger to the flight into Egypt as today we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family.

The gospel passage we hear today begins with a warning. “An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt.’” (Matthew 2:13) As events unfold, we discover that Herod has ordered the slaughter of all the male children under the age of two, thereby hoping to rid himself of the newborn Jesus. While we know that Jesus and his parents escaped, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, celebrated on December 28th, recalls those many young boys who did not escape Herod.

While we must surely attend with somber reflection to innocent lives still lost to human treachery in our own day, the spirit of the Christmas season urges us to focus more on love’s potential than on its too-oft reported absence. Our houses remain aglow with festive light at this darkest time of the year, reminder to ourselves and passersby that warm brightness must begin within the human heart, not just at Christmas time but year ‘round, our lives witnessing during all seasons that we are love’s faithful disciples.

On this Feast of the Holy Family, when we hear of Jesus and his parents fleeing Herod’s threats, scripture scholar William Barclay offers us a fanciful tale that further brightens the season, calling our attention to the glittering, sparkling adornment of the Christmas trees that grace our homes:

“When Joseph and Mary were on their way to Egypt, the story runs, as the evening came they were weary, and they sought refuge in a cave. It was very cold, so cold that the ground was white with hoar frost. A little spider saw the baby Jesus, and he wished so much that he could do something to keep him warm in the cold night. He decided to do the only thing he could and spin his web across the entrance to the cave, to make, as it were, a curtain there.

“Along the path came a detachment of Herod’s soldiers, seeking for children to kill to carry out Herod’s bloodthirsty order. When they came to the cave they were about to burst in to search it, but their captain noticed the spider’s web, covered with the white hoar frost and stretched right across the entrance to the cave. ‘Look,’ he said ‘at the spider’s web there. It is quite unbroken and there cannot possibly be anyone in the cave, for anyone entering would certainly have broken the web.’

“So the soldiers passed on, and left the holy family in peace, because a little spider had spun its web across the entrance to the cave. And that, so they say, is why to this day we put tinsel on our Christmas trees, for the glittering tinsel streamers stand for the spider’s web, white with the hoar frost, stretched across the entrance of the cave on the way to Egypt.” (William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, Vol. I, p. 35)

While this fanciful tale may attribute heart-warming symbolism to the garlanding of the Christmas tree with tinsel, providing generations of families with a biblical meditation as they adorn their holiday tree, we tell a far less inspiring story in my large family. Tinsel remains the centerpiece, but that’s its only apparent connection to the gospel account of the holy family’s flight into Egypt.

Many years ago, when the six of us were still kids, the excitement of holiday preparations was shared with Snoopy, our inquisitive cat. While he pretended good behavior by day when under our observation, the night was his. We’d become accustomed to nocturnal crashes and splashes as he knocked knick-knacks off tables and sometimes even went fishing in the aquarium, having learned how to open its enclosed top. But now it was Christmas, and a live 7-foot evergreen filled the corner of the living room. Snoopy was sometimes discovered sleeping in the crook of a branch when my father arose early for work in the morning. And the addition of ornaments and tinsel only increased the feline fun as each morning we’d retrieve battered and broken ornaments that had been playfully tossed from the tree during the night.

Tinsel, though, was the thing! Glittering in the evening light, it was sure to catch a cat’s eye. Only after that Christmas did we learn the danger it posed to our family pet, but in the weeks before, when Snoopy regularly complemented his diet of boring cat food with strands of shiny tinsel, our pet became a neighborhood celebrity. We kids invited friends over to watch the manic animal dash through the house trailing behind him the still brilliantly shining tinsel strands that were struggling to exit the back door of his digestive tract. Snoopy was rightly renamed the “Silver Streak” as he added a most unique touch to the Christmas holiday at our house so many years ago.

The Feast of the Holy Family: Mary and Joseph flee with their child to protect him from Herod; a tiny spider assists in the escape; the use of Christmas tree tinsel yearly reminds us of that spider’s diligence; Snoopy the cat streaks through our house tinsel-adorned in celebration of the birth of Jesus. This continuing Christmas season, may we stream the sparkling glitter of warm love through our families!

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