Oftentimes one hears arguments from and among politicians about “family values.” These values are used as measuring sticks in political contests to try and sway people to a certain way of thinking or a specific political agenda. Because values lack by their very nature a concrete form or realization, it is difficult to really pin down exactly what either the word “family” or “values” really means.
I would suggest that “virtue” is far more important than any value. Unlike values, virtues or virtuous behavior is specific and observable. The readings for this Sunday identify a crucial virtue that is very concrete.
From the Book of Genesis, we read of a prophetic moment in the life of Abram (who will later be known as Abraham). That prophetic moment is about Abraham’s heir and the continuation of his family line. Abram and God are in the midst of a conversation. Abram eventually comes to accept the promise that God makes even though it is very likely an impossibility. His acceptance of God’s promise is reckoned as faith, a faith placed in God rather than in the promise. Abram reasons that even though there is very little probability of Sarai and his conceiving a child, God can be trusted. Consequently Abram believes.
The Letter to the Hebrews takes us into the mystery of Abraham’s faith even more deeply. The sacred writer reminds us that this is not the first time that Abraham trusted in God’s word. He had also left his homeland when God told him to do so. In our modern day world, moving to a new home is not all that out of the ordinary. In my own case, my mother and father moved us four times before I was nine years old. However, for the people of Abraham’s time, moving away from one’s ancestral home and one’s ancestors was extraordinary. One’s history, one’s present, even one’s future was completely tied up in one’s ancestors. However, Abraham believed God’s word when God told him to leave Ur of the Chaldees for a new homeland.
The sacred writer then picks up Abraham’s trust in God’s word not only about having a child, but again twelve years later when he is asked to sacrifice his son’s life. It is here that the sacred writer specifically tells us that Abraham placed his trust in the one who made the promises rather than in the promises themselves. Abraham trusts in God’s promises.
The Gospel relates the story of the presentation of Jesus in the Temple of Jerusalem. The story illustrates first of all that Jesus was born into a traditional, observant Jewish household. Five times within the telling of this story, the evangelist mentions that all was being done “according to the law of Moses.” Joseph and Mary were faithful children of Israel and of the Sinai covenant. Jesus would be raised in God’s covenanted relationship.
The story also introduces two characters who are advanced in age: Simeon and Anna. We are told that Simeon was in right relationship with God, devout, and awaiting the consolation of Israel. He was looking forward to the day when Israel would once again be faithful to the Sinai covenant. Incredibly, Simeon recognizes in this baby who is not yet two months old, the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel. While almost every human baby represents the hope for a bright future, this baby represented an even greater hope. This is, therefore, another prophetic moment.
Anna, on the other hand, is a victim of the Law. The Law of Moses dictated that a woman’s value lay in the ability to bear sons. Without a son, a widow is left without a voice. She has spent the vast majority of her life, eighty-four years, in poverty. If anyone had a reason for doubting God’s promises, surely it was this woman. Yet we hear that she also saw the fulfillment of God’s promises in this child.
The virtues of Abraham, Joseph, Mary, Simeon and Anna revolve around their relationship to and with God. The word “righteous” implies a relationship. Self-righteousness is antithetical to true righteousness. These individuals are presented to us as people who are in right relationship with God and with one another. The concrete actions and the words they utter are specific, observable behaviors that tell us that these are people of tremendous virtue. They are held up to us today as examples of true family virtues. They are true to their relationship with God. They place their trust in God.
Obviously, the readings for today are trying to teach us that first among family virtues is trust in God. God is the faithful one who keeps promises. This virtue reminds us that what God wants of each of us is a relationship that is based on trust in God’s word. Jesus is presented to us as the fulfillment of God’s promises. Indeed, whenever we gather around the table of the Lord, it is to worship our faithful God and to give thanks for the gift of Jesus who is still with us. God has fulfilled the promise made to Abraham, to Joseph and Mary, and to Simeon and Anna. God will fulfill the promises made to us who have been told that the one who eats the flesh and drinks the blood of Jesus will have eternal life.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator