Heaven and the Holy Family
We’re in the thick of an eight day journey from Christmas to the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God (New Year’s Day). The Sunday between Christmas and New Year’s Day is Holy Family Sunday. The Church meditates upon the intimacy of Jesus, Mary and Joseph’s homelife. Their “living room” was a bit of Heaven on Earth. Holy Family Sunday reminds us that our living rooms – and dining rooms, back decks, front porches and back yards – should be little Heavens. The conversations, games and meals that we share in these places should invite Christ to join us. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me” (Revelation 3:20).
Today we ponder the role of family life in God’s Providence and plan of Redemption. Because Christ – the Eternal Son of the Father – became man in his mother’s womb, He identifies Himself with every person, from conception through birth, through infancy and childhood, through adolescence and adulthood. As a child and a young man, Christ experienced not only the vulnerability that everyone experiences in youth, but also the need for a living room and a place to call home.
By becoming human, God put himself in the hands of human parents, entrusted with the sensitive task of guarding, guiding and forming his humanity. Because God is All-Powerful, he could well have made Jesus grow to perfect manhood in any family situation, even a difficult one. But God didn’t do that. He used Christ’s vulnerability to bring out the virtues of Mary and Joseph. Through Mary and Joseph, he showed us how to treat vulnerable human life: with a father’s wisdom, with a mother’s love, with God’s grace. By entrusting Jesus to Mary and Joseph, God shows us all how we are to handle a vulnerable child – a boy, in this case – by guiding and loving him in order that he may grow into a masterpiece of manly virtue, courage and holiness.
The Gospel says nothing about Jesus’ childhood, save for a brief moment at age twelve when he was found in the Temple. What, we may ask, went on during those thirty quiet years in the Holy Family? We know that many adult habits – both virtues and vices – have roots in childhood. Perhaps Jesus’ adult years, as recorded in the Gospel, give hints about the thirty hidden years. As an adult, Jesus climbed mountains to spend all night in prayer. He gave his most famous sermon on the mountain. Why? Climbing mountains has precedent in Scripture: Abraham, Moses and Elijah did it. These prophetic gestures foretold what Jesus would do. But what prepared Jesus to do this?
Could it be that Joseph did this with him as a child? Could it be that Joseph hiked with the boy Jesus up a mountain and told him that this was a good place to pray? Could it be that Joseph told him about Abraham, Moses and Elijah, and that Scriptures describe God’s House as a Holy Mountain, Mount Zion? Would it not figure that Joseph told the boy Jesus that the mountain is a good place to talk to his real Father in Heaven?
I don’t know if this is what actually happened. Nobody does. The Gospel doesn’t tell us. There is one thing we do know: the affection and manly wisdom of a father is important to the moral growth of a child. The good things that fathers teach their children are likely to never be forgotten. Furthermore, the affection of a father wins the affection of his children in return. When children love their father, they love the things he teaches them. That’s the best and most meaningful education possible. No amount of tuition can purchase this kind of learning. When this happens, children’s affections are prepared to show affection for their Father in Heaven, that is, how to pray. When an earthly father loves his children, he prepares them for the most basic lesson of religion: to love and reverence the Father in Heaven. If a father wins the reverence and respect of his children, he will prepare them to feel reverence and respect for God, their ultimate Father. This opens the way for the healing and renewing effects of the Holy Spirit’s Gift of Piety. Through this Gift, affection and gratitude to God re-orient and renew all emotions, feelings and affections toward health. The whole psychic order of a person is launched on a journey toward healing and wholeness.
As for Virgin Mary’s role in Jesus’ life, I need not speculate. This beautiful quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church sums it all up:
The Son of God who became Son of the Virgin also learned to pray according to his human heart. He learns the formulas of prayer from his mother, who kept in her heart and meditated upon all the "great things" done by the Almighty. (CCC 2599)
Mary taught Jesus how to pray because she herself always pondered God’s beauty and mystery. Prayer was the heart of life in the Holy Family, just as it once had been in Paradise before Adam and Eve sinned. Here’s our lesson: our homes should be sanctuaries of prayer. A family should be a community where Christ is present, front and center. Family life is where Christ is honored, revered and loved; and where his Commandments are taught and practiced. A family is a school of charity, and the living room is love’s classroom. The family is where we learn daily to “seek first the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 6:33). The home is a school of virtue. It’s where one learns to reject the bad and choose the good.
What about people who haven’t had a father’s loving guidance or a mother’s tender care, for whatever reason? What about a broken home? What about someone who grew up without moral and religious guidance at home? What are they to do? The answer is clear: join the living room of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. You’re always welcome there. They are hospitable. Jesus’ whole human life – his joys and sufferings – reach deeply into the brokenness of every wounded person, family and home. That’s what He came for. He heals, if we let him. By teaching us to call God “Father,” Christ purifies distorted images of “fatherhood” that may have been acquired from bad experiences. Once again, listen to the wisdom of the Catechism:
Before we make our own… the Lord's Prayer, we must humbly cleanse our hearts of certain false images drawn "from this world." Humility makes us recognize that "no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him…. The purification of our hearts has to do with paternal or maternal images, stemming from our personal and cultural history, and influencing our relationship with God…. To pray to the Father is to enter into his mystery as he is and as the Son has revealed him to us. (CCC 2779)
In other words, personally knowing Christ purifies our mind and heart. It purifies our mental image of “father” and “mother.” He heals us, and he begins the process of restoring our humanity. This is what Christmas and Holy Family Sunday is about. It’s a new beginning. The purification that begins with encountering Christ will be complete – like a rose blossom – at the Last Judgment, when the dead are raised and the righteous enter into a New Heaven and New Earth.
In the meantime – here and now – Christian living is about purifying the heart. “Blessed are the pure for heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). The Gospel sums it up: Jesus saves us from our sins. What is the benefit of being “saved” from our sins? To know the Father. Jesus said, “He who sees me, sees the Father” (John 14:9). If we repent of sin, which includes the Sacrament of Confession, we begin to discover who we really are: creatures made in God’s image and likeness, with a divine and eternal destiny. We come to know God as he really is: the Beautiful and Eternal Light who loves us. We no longer see Him in a psychologically illusive way as, say, a policeman, or as a dictator issuing orders and edicts, or as an authoritarian figure issuing punishments to the naughty and prizes to the nice. “He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice, he’s going to find out who’s naughty and nice…” This not what God’s like. No, we now experience Him for who He really is: a gentle and wise Father who always embraces his children and gives them joy and the good things of life. He’s a patient Father, who allows us go astray and return. Perhaps he wants to us learn, by experience, “how the cow ate the cabbage.”
Whatever we do, the Father is a serene Light who shares with us his Son – his personal Artist – who makes all things good and beautiful according to the deep secrets of his Love. The Father’s Mind is disclosed by the Son, who comes through Mary, who reveals his relationship with his Father through his human relationship with Joseph. The living room of Galilee reveals, in a tangible way, the Living Room of the Trinity. This is the greatest lesson that fathers and mothers can teach their children – by giving them this experience.