The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York houses a beautiful triptych of the Holy Family called the “Mérode Altarpiece,” painted by Robert Campin. The left of the three-paneled piece of art captures an open door of two bystanders peering into the main panel of the Annunciation, while the far-right panel depicts St. Joseph in his carpentry shop. This artistic masterpiece captures who the Christian is as they examine the life of the Holy Family and the extraordinary events surrounding their life and calling from God. Catching a glimpse of that home in Nazareth, where the Christ Child grew in age and wisdom into his adult years, we experience how the Holy Family informs family life in the third millennium. In the biblical stories of Jesus, Mary and Joseph we see their example of virtuous living.
They Follow God’s Lead
The Scriptures paint the early life of the Holy Family as God calls them to a special mission. With the angel Gabriel, we greet Mary and learn of her calling to become the Mother of God. Our introduction to St. Joseph consists of him deciding to divorce Mary quietly, believing she brought shame and dishonor upon him and his family. But an angel invites Joseph to change his mind and take Mary into his home, to become the guardian of Mary and Jesus, the husband of Mary and foster-father of Jesus.
In that home at Nazareth we meet a couple who shows an openness to allowing God to lead their life together. Mary surely had other plans for her life; as many believe, she took a vow of virginity at an early age, so becoming a physical mother was something she did not anticipate. Yet, she heard God’s invitation, and knew that His plans were better for her life; therefore, she gives her fiat — that is, her “yes” to God.
St. Joseph opens his heart to the messenger sent by God and takes Mary into his home. This would not be the first or last time that St. Joseph followed God’s lead in his life as he protected the Holy Family. After Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, they follow the prompting of an angel to flee into Egypt for safety and wait there until another angelic message leads them back home. The Holy Family is a great example for families everywhere to always be open to whatever God’s will might be and to always be listening for God to speak. He might speak his will in prayer or through another person. By our own prayer and discernment, we too can follow God’s lead for our life.
A Teacher of Virtue
The home should be the principal place of catechesis. Unfortunately, many families today allow the Church to fill that role alone. The home of Nazareth, in addition to the local synagogue, would have been the place of instruction for the Christ Child. The Holy Family taught Jesus how to read, and at the start of his public ministry Jesus would read from the scroll and declare the passage to be fulfilled in their hearing (see Lk 4:21). Mary and Joseph would have taught the Christ Child how to pray, especially the Shema, and years later Jesus would teach his disciples how to pray with the Our Father. Joseph would have handed on his trade to his son, who later would die on the wood of a cross. Jesus had a great concern for the poor and the marginalized. In the home of Nazareth he learned generosity and kindness. The home of Nazareth reminds us that families have the responsibility of teaching their children the Faith and to model the virtues. Jesus had most excellent parents; Mary was without sin and Joseph is described as a just and prudent man. Parents today can learn from Joseph and Mary on how to teach their children.
A Call to Chastity
The Catholic tradition upholds the belief that Mary remained ever-virgin. St. Joseph often is referred to as Mary’s most chaste spouse, and in the Litany of St. Joseph is recognized as the chaste guardian of the Virgin. Perhaps this is yet another way the Holy Family provides an example to our modern world, often assaulted by sexual promiscuity and fleeting lustful thoughts. The chaste relationship of Joseph and Mary reminds all Christian faithful that, even in marriage, chastity is to be observed. The practice of natural family planning (NFP) is one way a couple observes chastity in their marriage. The fidelity of Joseph and Mary to each other also gives great example and encourages couples in their fidelity to one another, even in difficult circumstances. The chaste relationship between Joseph and Mary means they experienced intimacy in different ways through their common life together. Their purity of mind and heart of mutual love for each other and the Son of God is indeed worthy of imitation by all families.
Devotion to the Holy Family
Devotion to the Holy Family of Nazareth emerges in times when the family becomes weakened because of political and societal pressures. In the medieval period, Jean Gerson, theologian at the Council of Constance (1414-18), encouraged devotion to the Holy Family, and Pope Leo XIII said that imitation of the Holy Family would be a means to revitalize and strengthen family life. In the third millennium the institution of the family once again suffers attacks politically and socially. Perhaps now is the time for us to knock on the door of the Holy Family’s home in Nazareth and move from being an onlooker peering in to a guest in their home. From them we will learn many virtues for Christian family life and, through their inspiration, to practice them in our homes and among our own families.
Fr. Looney is a priest of the diocese of Green Bay, WI. Follow him on Twitter at @FrEdwardLooney.