There’s a Palestinian folktale that as the Holy Family was fleeing to Egypt, with some of Herod’s soldiers no more than a day behind them, they approached a field where some farmers were about to sow chickpeas—a common plant used as food for humans and animals throughout much of history. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, the Holy Family stopped and Mary addressed the workers, saying, “Today you are just planting the seeds of your crop. But by this time tomorrow your field will be fully grown and ready to harvest.” The farmers were too polite to call Mary crazy, but they looked at each other in disbelief, while the Virgin Mother continued, “You must remember, though, that if anyone comes this way looking for my husband, my Son, and me, you are to say, ‘Yes, that woman and her husband and baby were here—it was on the very day we were planting these chickpeas.’” Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus then continued on their way, and the next morning—to their amazement—the farmers found their newly-planted crop fully grown and ready to be harvested. As they were working in the field, a band of Herod’s soldiers approached, and with a menacing voice their leader demanded, “Has a woman and her husband and infant child passed this way?” The farmers looked at one another, and one of them replied, “Why, yes, a woman of that description passed this way—it was on the very day we were planting these chickpeas.” The officer spat in disgust, cursed aloud, and exclaimed, “That must have been quite some time ago—we’ll never catch up with them now!,” and he ordered his men to give up the chase and return to Jerusalem (Spiritual Book News, October 2008, filed in homily notebook, “Holy Family”). This legend makes a simple but important point: no human power can thwart God’s plan—and if we are cooperating with this plan, we have nothing to fear.
King Herod is known to history as “Herod the Great.” He was one of the most cunning, able, and ruthless rulers who ever lived, but he ended up dying a horrible death—one filled with agony and despair, surely followed by eternal damnation. It didn’t have to end that way. Even as late in life as his encounter with the magi—after he had already murdered many people, including one of his brothers, wives, sons, and two stepsons—Herod could still have repented; if, after hearing about Jesus, he had offered genuine homage to the newborn King, he would have been saved. This would have fit in very nicely with God’s plan, but Herod would have nothing to do with it. Rejecting God’s design for our lives can only lead to tragedy; accepting it leads to great blessings—blessings which are often lived out in the setting of our families. The Book of Sirach (3:2-6, 12-14) informs us that “whoever honors his father atones for sins, and . . . he stores up riches who reveres his mother.” God wants to touch our lives in and through our homes and families. That’s why St. Paul, in his Letter to the Colossians (3:12-21), gives specific instructions on how husbands, wives, and children are to show mutual love and respect toward one another—and those who fulfill God’s design in this way truly will grow in holiness and peace.
There was once an honest merchant in Boston who was something of a wholesaler in fish: he purchased the daily catch of fishermen, and in turn sold fish to markets and restaurants. The man loved his family dearly, and every morning after breakfast, they spent time praying together. One day two of the man’s business competitors came to him and talked him into a deal in which they’d corner the market on codfish, drive up the price, and become rich in the process. The plan was very successful, but then the merchant learned that many residents of Boston, especially the poor, were suffering greatly as a result. One morning he tried to pray with his family as usual, but couldn’t; when they asked what was wrong, he didn’t answer, but left immediately, found his partners, and said, “I can’t afford to do anything which interferes with my family prayers. This morning, when I got on my knees and tried to pray, there was a mountain of codfish before me high enough to shut out the throne of God. I tried my best to get over it or around it, but could not; every time I tried to open my mouth in prayer, that codfish loomed between me and God, and between me and my family. I won’t have my family prayers spoiled for all the codfish in the Atlantic Ocean, so I’ll have no more part in this scheme” (Knight’s Master Book of 4000 Illustrations, p. 205).
That’s a wonderful story of a man who loved God enough to do the right thing—but it was the influence and presence of his family, and their custom of praying together, that made him realize his need to repent and remain true to his values. That’s what our families are supposed to do for us: help us remain aware of what really matters in life, give us a chance to experience and practice following the Lord’s plan for our lives, and encourage and support us in our efforts to hear and answer God’s call. Praying and reading the Bible together, talking about the high points of our day, sharing our problems and worries, rejoicing in each other’s successes, and making parish activities and events an important part of family life, are all ways of imitating the Holy Family and of growing in God’s grace. Just as King Herod had soldiers and lackeys who were willing to carry out his evil orders, so there are many persons, institutions, and movements in today’s world seeking to minimize or undermine our faith, or to enslave or even destroy us spiritually. All these efforts to prevent the coming of the Kingdom of God will certainly fail—but until then, they remain very dangerous. Our homes and families are on the front lines of an ongoing and all-encompassing spiritual war. This is reason for us to be alert and cautious, but not to be discouraged or afraid. Just as God arranged events, and—when necessary—worked miracles, to protect the Holy Family, so He stands ready in our world today to assist all those who place their trust in Him. Our Lord is all-seeing, all-loving, and all-powerful—and as long as we remain united to Him, our future holiness and happiness is assured.