5th Day: Gold & Family

Did you ever notice while singing the “Twelve Days of Christmas” that there’s something unique about the fifth day? Not only are the “five go-old rings” sung jarringly slower, almost like going over a speed bump too fast, they are also the only inanimate objects in the whole list. Among the twelve gifts, six are birds and five are people. And then there’s gold.

634a95901eaa4a28d11ab2ee314a8d5bGold, of course, throughout human history has had lots of meanings. It is a vehicle for some of the most exquisite works of art that human imagination can create, as well as the object of the idolatry of greed: witness Midas and Croesus.

Try as I might, I have not been able to get any good online information about the meaning and/or symbolism of these five gold rings. Just some unbelievably silly stuff. Five rings for five fingers? Five interlocking rings, as in the Olympic symbol? If anyone can shed further light on this, please do so in a comment.

The religious / catechetical interpretation, that the five rings represent the first five books of the Bible – the Pentateuch or Torah – doesn’t seem very plausible and is easily debunked. Other double meanings for rings? Maybe onion rings, thick cut and well battered, deep fried to a golden brown. That’s really appealing to me, and best not more than five!

If it’s hard to get a handle on the gold rings, it’s just as hard to say much about today’s saints. Nobody seems to capture our attention or imagination in a way that we would want to celebrate.  You can find a list of saints who are on the Roman calendar for this date here, but none are even remotely part of our contemporary (or even historical) Catholic culture.

However, this year the 5th Day of Christmas falls on Sunday, and so it’s celebrated as the Feast of the Holy Family, which nearly always the Sunday between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Except when they fall on Sunday, then the feast gets bumped to the Monday after New Year’s. Here’s something I wrote for the parish bulletin some years back, but I think it still has interest and relevance.

The Holy Family, just a threesome? NOT!

We are all familiar with pictures of the Holy Family. Some are pious holy cards, some are sentimental, and some are just cute or silly.

And they are all wrong!

When we think of the Holy Family, we think of Jesus, Mary and Joseph – kind of in quiet, contemplative isolation.

Growing up as an only child, without siblings very few nearby close relatives, I’m familiar with the image. While I had a lot of close friends and school pals, the bottom line family relationship was never more than mom and dad and me. Later on, especially as a young priest, I was vicariously part of larger families, and came to know and appreciate the both the benefits and the burdens of large extended family relationships.

Sometimes I thought that the Holy Family – Jesus, Mary and Joseph only – was a lot like what I grew up in. Well, it wasn’t.

In the Jewish communities of the ancient near east, there was no such thing as a small family. There was no such thing as privacy either.

The household would hustle and bustle with extended family members – grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews, would likely live under the same roof or next door in a house sharing a wall and perhaps a kitchen. Then as now, the poor did not have the luxury of space.

Don’t forget the enigmatic brothers and sisters of Jesus mentioned in the Gospels. Some have explained them away as cousins. I think it’s far more likely they were Joseph’s children by a previous marriage – death in childbirth was tragically common in past ages. Second marriages to provide a mother for the widower’s children was not exceptional.

Joseph was a carpenter, but the Greek word we understand as carpenter – tekton – actually meant a construction worker. During Jesus’ youth, the Romans were building a splendid imperial city – Sepphoris – just an hour’s walk from Nazareth. It’s likely Joseph was a minimum-wage construction worker, helping to build palaces and monuments for the emperor. Jesus probably did this too. He knew firsthand the injustices wreaked upon the poor working class by the wealthy and powerful.

Jesus grew up, not in a calm and peaceful woodworking shop in a small village, as we usually picture him. He grew up in a large and dynamic family, with all the bickering and loving, all the petty selfishness and extraordinary generosity that we find in large families.

The important point is that Jesus came from a family not that much different from most of ours. We can relate to him and he to us. He knows what our life is like.

Isn’t that wonderful?

Today, perhaps it would great to celebrate the Holy Family, not in contemplative isolation, but in a large, boisterous gathering, enjoying onion rings, of course, along with hamburgers and beverages of good cheer.

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