Giving Your Children to the Lord: Sermon for the Feast of the Holy Family, December 31, 2023
“By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac, … He reasoned that God was able to raise even from the dead, and he received Isaac back as a symbol.”
After celebrating the Lord’s Nativity, we have now fast-forwarded 40 days to His Presentation in the Temple, in fulfillment of the law of Moses, which required that the first born son be dedicated to the Lord, and that women giving birth undergo a rite of purification 40 days after the birth of their children. While we will celebrate that event on the Feast of the Lord’s Presentation exactly 40 days after Christmas, February second, today we contemplate this encounter in our celebration of the Feast of the Holy Family.
The Lord’s Presentation is perhaps most familiar to us as the fourth of the joyful mysteries of the Rosary, and in the words of the devout man Simeon, we see why it is a mystery. Simeon has puzzling, mysterious, and even foreboding things to say about the Christchild: “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted —and you yourself a sword will pierce— so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
Just as at Christmas, this scene evokes mixed emotions. We see the beauty and intimacy of a family scene – like a couple baptizing their first child. We hear the joy of the aged Simeon as his longing to see the Savior is fulfilled, just as the infant in the manger is the fulfillment of long ages, of the groaning of a world grown tired by sin and death. But at the same time, we know why He is born. As His name tells us, He comes to save His people from their sins, which will involve the sacrifice of His life on the Cross – the torture of Calvary.
Likewise, Simeon’s words reveal how the history of the Jewish people – and even the entire world – is now balanced on a thread in this little Babe. His coming will upend the world as they know it, He will be resisted by the authorities, and He will expose the emptiness and hypocrisy of those in power. The joy of His Mother will be pierced by sorrow.
These are heavy themes on what ought to be a day of rejoicing. Still within the glow of the Octave of Christmas, the Church bids us rejoice in the patronage of the Holy Family, inviting us into the joy that a family experiences in welcoming a new child. It is as if we are going to visit a child, sibling, cousin, or close friend who has just brought that new baby home from the hospital. As soon as you open the door, there is a palpable joy and tenderness that fills your heart as you prepare to see that tiny, beautiful child.
So why, then, all this foreboding? Clearly, this Child is different than any other child, and His mission is different than any other child. The Sacred Liturgy emphasizes today an essential task of being a mother or father: to give your child over to God.
This is precisely what Joseph and Mary went to the Temple to do. The Law emphasized that every first born male – human or animal – belonged to God. The first of everything is His. Animals were given to God by sacrifice, but could be “redeemed” by offering something else in its place, especially by the poor who desperately needed that new calf or lamb. The firstborn son obviously could not be sacrificed, but in his place were offered a sacrifice in accordance with the status of his parents. Mary and Joseph offer two young pigeons – the sacrifice appropriate to people of humble estate.
Likewise, the Church invites Christian parents to offer their children to God. Many children have lives that are carefully planned for them. That has always been the case in some shape or form – from antiquity, parents have been planning the occupations, spouses, or even ecclesiastical careers of their children. But now this careful curation of the child’s life extends all the way down to childhood, with the frequent and unfortunate side effect that when the young arrive at adulthood, they are plagued with a fear of commitment and decision fatigue because of a childhood in which every moment was carefully curated for them by someone else.
So having plans for your children is not bad at all – a lot of times, the parents’ plans are better than the child’s own plans. But what are God’s plans for your child? What is God’s will for his or her life? Forming your child in an openness to God’s will is even more important than helping her to excel in school or in the myriad of activities in which he will soon be engaged.
Parents of older children, especially adolescents, have different struggles in giving their children over to God. Many carry a deep pain or sense of betrayal because of the choices their children have made. When you realize that your child has been making choices contrary to the way that you have formed him, you can feel failure as a parent, or just anger at a child who ought to know better.
(And if you are thinking, “My child is a good kid. She’s never done that to me,” you might need to be more vigilant, because my experience is that even the best kids break their parents’ hearts eventually (or frequently) if their parents really know what is going on.)
Here too there is the opportunity to give your children over to the Lord. They are His children before they are yours. They have been given to you by Him to rear, to shepherd, to guide and form. Their moral failures are usually not sins of malice, but of the weaknesses that we have all had to face. Their weakness in the face of temptation is not a rejection of you as their parents or any kind of personal attack. Ask the Lord to help you not take it so personally, and to see their stumbling as the opportunity to show them the kindness, gentleness, and appropriate firmness of God the Father as you correct, guide, and pardon in a holy manner.
More difficult, though, are those adult children whose choices to live with someone outside the Sacrament of Matrimony, abandon or grow tepid in the practice of the faith, or adhere to anti-Christian ideologies cause their parents grief and pain. You no longer have the opportunity to correct and guide as you would a child or adolescent, and maybe you also have to live with a great deal of guilt over what you could have said or done to inculcate a greater habit of faithfulness in them, you can still give them over to the Lord.
Parallel to the account of the Lord’s Presentation today, we get the story of Isaac. After Abraham and his wife Sarah could not conceive, the Lord promised that their descendants would be as numerous as the stars of the sky, and gave them Isaac, their son. “Abram put his faith in the LORD, who credited it to him as an act of righteousness.” However, God then put Abraham to the test, as alluded to in the Letter to the Hebrews today. God asked Abraham to sacrifice his only son. It would seem that God is betraying His own promise. How will Abraham’s descendants be as numerous as the stars of the sky, when this elderly man, “himself as good as dead,” in St. Paul’s words, sacrifices his only son?
St. Paul makes an astounding observation regarding Abraham’s faith: “He reasoned that God was able to raise even from the dead, and he received Isaac back as a symbol.” Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac is not a blind faith in a capricious God. This is often the interpretation we hear of this story, and one that is particularly popular in the Protestant world, whose anti-philosophical bent inclines towards a God who establishes goodness arbitrarily: It’s good because God says it is, or it’s wrong because God says it is, and there’s nothing more you need to know. Luther claimed that true faith was following the ridiculousness of divine commands: I believe because it is absurd.
What Abraham does is very different than a blind leap to faith. St. Paul tells us that Abraham is willing to sacrifice Isaac, in seeming contradiction to God’s own promises, because he believed that the God who gave him Isaac miraculously could just as easily raise him from the dead. Abraham’s faith is justifying, or saving, precisely because he shows an implicit faith in the Resurrection of Christ. That faith gave Abraham the confidence to offer his son to God.
Maybe you have also felt “as good as dead” when faced with the sorrow that often comes from being a Christian parent. Your child – new born, adult, or already departed from this life – is also a mystery, destined for the rise and fall of many. To be a Christian mother or father is inevitably to enter into that mystery of Mary’s pierced heart. But Christ’s Resurrection, and the faith in that triumph over death shown by great saints like the patriarch Abraham, inspires us to have faith that they are in God’s hands, because they are first His, before they were ever yours.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
Feast of the Holy Family, A.D. MMXXIII
Image: The Binding of Isaac by Michelangelo da Caravaggio (1603)