the holy family: blood and water
As I was preparing my homily for this feast, the old phrase “Blood is thicker than water” kept coming to my mind, but in a negative way. I assume the saying means that our family ties, at least with our blood relations, are the strongest ones––but I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I say this in no way to denigrate the nuclear family, but if you think about it, the marriage bond, the very heart of the nuclear family, isn’t a bond of blood; it’s a bond of choice, an act of the will. Think of Joseph: he wasn’t blood related to either Mary or Jesus!
I was reading an article in the New York Times recently that was recounting what a common phenomenon it actually is for people to be estranged from a member of their family, even a parent, even sometimes estranged from their entire family. I realized at one point that my own life and interests had grown so vastly different from my own family that if I was going to have a relationship with them as an adult, I was going to have to choose it, and cultivate it. Is blood really thicker than water? The water symbolizes Baptism to me, but first of all the “baptism of desire,” if I may misuse that phrase. The strongest relationships may be the ones we desire, the ones we choose, the ones we will. Baptism, of course, is also a symbol of the spiritual life, and I have found that by now my friends and companions in the spiritual life, who I easily refer to as brothers and sisters, know me as well as or even better than my parents or my sisters. Not only do they know what kind of snacks I like, they know when I’m tense and need a break, they know what topics really set me on fire and where my deepest sadness comes from. In this way, the water––the water of spiritual initiation––is a mighty strong bond, thicker even than blood. Even Jesus would say the same thing; once when he was told that his mother and brothers were waiting for him outside, he said, ‘Whoever hears the Word of God and keeps it is brother, sister, mother to me.’
There’s a sub-theme to the story of the Presentation in the Temple that we hear this year for the Feast of the Holy Family that is easy to overlook, and that is its Eucharistic aspect. All throughout the infancy narratives, Saint Luke does a marvelous job of weaving together themes and allusions from the Hebrew Scriptures. And in this scene with Simeon in the Temple Luke is referring back to the practice mentioned in chapter 13 of the Book of Exodus. There are four different words used to describe this act: “consecrating the first born,” “setting apart to the Lord all that first opens the womb,” “sacrificing to the Lord every male that first opens the womb,” and especially “redeeming the first born sons.”[i] Remember, all the first-born sons of the Egyptians are about to be killed by the avenging angel. The Hebrews needed to redeem their own sons by sprinkling the blood of the sacrificed lamb on their lintels. This is all mentioned in Moses’ discourse to the people just before the first feast of the unleavened bread and before the flight from Egypt, and so the consecration of the firstborn is intimately connected both to the feast of unleavened bread and to the Exodus itself––and so, we could say, for us it’s connected to Holy Thursday and Good Friday, to the Eucharist and Jesus’ passion and death.
Keep in mind also that there actually was an ancient heinous practice, particularly among the Phoenicians in northern Africa, of sacrificing children to the gods. The mention of Abram that the lectionary offers us today in the first reading from Genesis 15, and then again of Abraham and Sarah in the reading from the Letter to the Hebrews, perhaps is meant to make us recall Abraham almost sacrificing his son––his only son, his beloved one––Isaac on the fire before he is stopped by the angel. Why I think that’s important is because Luke doesn’t focus on Jesus being redeemed at the Temple; Jesus is being presented at the Temple. The Greek verb that Luke uses is paristánai, which can also mean “offered” in the way that sacrifices were offered at the Temple. It’s the language of priesthood and sacrificial offering. Apparently Luke wants us to understand that instead of being redeemed and then restored to his parents at the Temple, Jesus is being “handed over to God in the Temple.” Instead of being given back to his parents, he is “given over completely to God,”[ii] offered up to God like an oblation. It made me think of the oblation in the Rule of Benedict, when the parents bind the hands of their son in the altar cloth at the presentation of the gifts.[iii]
I suppose all healthy parents (and mentors and teachers) at some point need to go through this, not just kicking the fledglings out of the nest but actually sacrificing them—handing them over, presenting them, giving them over to the world, to Life, giving them over to whatever it is God has planned for them, and accepting that death, the death of self, the death of their own plans. ‘Sorrow will pierce your soul,’ Simeon tells Mary. Think of Mary looking at this son of hers later on at twelve years old already talking to the elders. Someday this boy is going to say, ‘Who is my mother?’ and ‘You must renounce mother and father.’
It seems to me that there’s actually a kind of dual sacrifice going on for parents. Not only do they give their children away at some point; they in some way have to die in being parents at all, die to themselves. And I think the same thing applies here too to teachers and mentors of all sorts; maybe this is a model for all our love relationships. I have been thinking a lot lately about my favorite image of the Eucharist, Christ as the Pie Pelicane–the Holy Pelican, the mother pelican that rips open her breast when there is not enough food for the babies and allows them to drink her own blood. (See the image above.) I think of my father working three jobs––three jobs!––when I was a kid to make sure we had enough money for Christmas gifts besides food on the table and paying my mother’s medical bills. Parents, at their best, sacrifice their own good, even their own lives, for the sake of their children––a kind of Eucharistic offering, not unlike John the Baptist, too: ‘I must decrease, parents say to the kids, teachers say to their students, mentors say to their mentees, and you must increase.’
Is blood thicker than water? I don’t know. It is both blood and water that flow from the side of Jesus on the cross, St. John tells us, the water of Baptism and the blood of Eucharist. The Baptismal tie, the tie that binds us together on the spiritual path, that ties us to the Body of Christ, the body of believers, is very strong. What is equally strong if not stronger is the Eucharistic Blood, that is in some way the complementary energy to Baptism. And by that I don’t mean the people we go to Mass with and receive Holy Communion with. I mean the people we have chosen to be in relationship with, for whom we have sacrificed our lives, for whom we have become Eucharist, the people for whom we have allowed ourselves to be broken open and poured out. That’s our real family. It certainly may be parents giving their lives over for their children. It may be someone offering their knowledge and time and energy for the sake of social justice and care for the poor. It may be someone giving their life over as a hospice nurse or working with disabled children. It’s also those before whom we have laid down our lives in our solemn vows as religious, as monks––“until death”!––not only vowing to share all things in common, but, as St. Benedict calls for in the Rule, supporting one another’s weaknesses of body or behavior with the greatest patience, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another. Benedict calls this the good zeal that monks are to foster with fervent love, so that the monastic community too becomes a faithful Family of God, under an abba.[iv]
In our Eucharistic offering every day, in our sacrifice of praise, we present ourselves at the Temple, we lay our lives on the altar. Then we become Eucharist––we offer ourselves to each other, so as to become the faithful family of our God.
cyprian, dec 31 2017
[i] Ex 13:2, 12, 15.
[ii] Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, 82.
[iii] RB 59:28.
[iv] RB 72:3-6.