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 define this word as something to be solved. In doing so, it is as though we are a detective. 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, is visited by an angel—- and asked to trust. We 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 hangs prominently over a corner chair. When I am seated there, I often find myself looking closely 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 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 you will, when you will, and with who you will. But never should it be said that love is about enduring responsibilities—to others. 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. 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. It is the kind of love that we only learn through the family. And it is this very love that Jesus showed us was possible when He gave for us his own life on Good Friday.
Today, we celebrate the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph and are presented with a story from the Gospel of Luke (2:41-52). Within it, we are given a glimpse of the Divine Child alongside a story of parental love. In placing ourselves within that caravan, we walk alongside Mary and Joseph and assume that Jesus is walking somewhere within this group of travelers making their way home from Jerusalem. But soon, they realize that Jesus is not among them and panic sets in. We feel for Mary and Joseph as they frantically search for their son and ultimately retrace their steps back to the temple in Jerusalem. Standing next to them, we see their fears fall away when they see Jesus. But in questioning Him as to why He left them, Jesus answers them with questions of His own: “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” The Evangelist tells us that Mary and Joseph did not understand these words of Jesus and that He returned with them to Nazareth to “…advance in wisdom and age before God and man.”
During this Christmas season, with Mary and Joseph as our guides, may we reflect upon the multitude of ways that God loves us. And in doing so, may we come to believe and trust in His mysterious design for our families.