In his 1981 Apostolic Exhortation, Familiaris Consortio, St. John Paul II had this to say about the Holy Family:
“Through God’s mysterious design, it was in that family that the Son of God spent long years of a hidden life…Its life was passed in anonymity and silence in a little town in Palestine.” (#86)
Intentionally, the family life of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are described as mysterious, hidden, anonymous, and silent.
Given this description of the Holy Family, I would like to focus on one word— mystery. The word, mystery, has different meanings. In our day, many might define this word as something to be solved. In doing so, it is as though we are detectives. In solving the mystery, we are pleased when we are able to place it behind us. But there is another way of viewing this word. And this way may be found through the witness of Mary and Joseph.
Now if we remember, in Mary’s encounter with the angel Gabriel, important words were spoken to her: “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you.” Upon hearing this, we are told that Mary was greatly troubled. Aware of Mary’s fear, Gabriel continues: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” And so, Mary trusts. The same may be said for Joseph. Upon realizing that Mary was pregnant, his plans were to quietly divorce her until he, too, was visited by an angel—- and asked to trust.
We might ask: In what were Mary and Joseph trusting in? In God’s mysterious design.
But there is an added twist, as well. Mary and Joseph were being asked to trust in God’s mysterious design that would play itself out within the context of their family. And in doing so, they would become a holy family!
When we think about the Holy Family, we might do so in the presence of a holy card or some other image of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. In my family room, an artist’s rendition of the Holy Family’s Flight into Egypt (based on Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23) hangs prominently over a corner chair. When I view this image, I often find myself looking at the faces of Mary and Joseph and try to imagine the realities of their earthly lives. In fleeing from a violent king [Herod] who sought the life of Jesus and murdered holy innocents, their sole purpose was to protect Jesus, whose care had been entrusted to them. And so, they lived in a state of uncertainty and worry and fear. Aware that they were no longer living for themselves, Mary and Joseph wrapped themselves in God’s mysterious design for their family as the Lord revealed for them the meaning of true love.
Now our modern culture teaches us that when it comes to love, neither mystery nor God need apply. Daily, it reminds us that love should be recreational and non-committal. Some descriptors include: passion; intimacy; expressing our sexuality in various and twisted forms; doing what we will, when we will, and with who we will. But never, our culture reminds, should it be said that love is about enduring responsibilities—to others. And so, at the end of this self-inflicted train wreck, what our culture really says about love is that it is self-centered and that it is all about me.
But I wonder. Is that love? Is that true love?
A generation ago, I can remember being partially attached to that way of thinking—about love. But then came baby #1- a daughter who was followed just eleven months later by baby #2- another daughter (Irish twins, as some call them). And then, a few years later came baby #3- yet another daughter. And then came baby #4- a full-term-stillborn son who my wife and I held in our arms and mourned. Shortly after that came a health scare for my wife. And finally, a couple years later came baby #5- still another daughter to hold and cherish. At each delivery, I was changed. I can remember that when I peered into their tiny faces, I not only met them, but also saw the face of God. With each experience, a feeling came over me that, if called upon, I would give my own life for them. It was through them that I came to realize that true love only comes about when we live our lives for others.
At its inner core, then, love is sacrificial and life giving; it is always about the other. And it is the kind of love that we only learn through the family. It is this sort of love spoken by St. Paul in his Letter to the Colossians (3:12-17) that covers over any dysfunction that may be present within our families. It is this forgiving love that Jesus showed us was possible when He gave His own life—for us— on Good Friday.
Today, we celebrate the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. In doing so, we find ourselves in the midst of the Christmas season and nearing the end of 2019. Just days separate us from a new year and certain new resolutions.
Regarding today’s readings, one commentator asked this question: “If you could name just one quality that makes a family holy, what would it be? You might say love, or any of the other virtues that St. Paul lists in today’s second reading. And you may well be right. But what do you think keeps a family holy? What keeps them together for the long haul? Forgiveness.” He went on to note that even though Mary was born without sin, that Joseph was a saint, and Jesus is the Son of God, there was still room for misunderstanding——even among the Holy Family.
And regarding us? May our New Year’s resolve be twofold. First, may we make forgiveness a goal for our families for the coming year. And second, may we show our children and grandchildren how to forgive by modeling it ourselves. With Mary and Joseph as our guides, may we reflect upon the multitude of ways that God loves and forgives us.
By doing so, may we come to believe and trust in God’s mysterious design for our families.