The Christian family is a communion of persons, a sign and image of the communion of the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit. (CCC 2205)
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
31 December 2017
Today the Catholic Church celebrates The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. It’s no accident that Jesus was born into such a human family, a holy family that itself was the first Christian family who dwelt in the first Christian home. The Holy Family serves as a model for every family and, in fact, every person. Why? Because God calls all people without exception to the life of holiness. Jesus Christ invites everyone to live as he did and to imitate his example of giving his human will entirely over to the will of God the Father. Doing so came at great cost to Jesus. His obedience excluded nothing, not even a terrifyingly painful death on a Roman cross.
What does it mean to be holy?
Holiness is made possible by grace, and is defined as being dedicated, consecrated or devoted to God and to his service. It is opposed to and incompatible with worldliness. The holy person belongs entirely to God and strives to unite his human will to the will of God, as did Jesus, as did the Holy Family. The person of holiness is at God’s disposal, an attitude of mind and heart in which there is no room for self-centered egotism. The “I” of the person of saintly holiness is always the “I” spoken as a humble child in relation to the Almighty God. It is a profound “yes” given in loving obedience to the Tripersonal God. Holiness and free and loving obedience to God, then, go hand-in-hand. One cannot exist without the other. They’re inseparable.
Holiness is God’s standard. It’s what he requires of us all. And it comes at a cost to us. If we’re not experiencing this cost, then it is incumbent upon us to rethink our attitudes and behavior. The person of holiness will suffer in many ways as did the Holy Family. Holiness requires dedication to God—always. The person of holiness who belongs to Christ will be rejected by the world, misunderstood, persecuted and perhaps condemned for the wrong reasons, as was Christ.
If you have little or no desire to be faithfully obedient to God, if you carelessly dismiss the teaching of the Church on faith and morals, if you refuse to listen to the voice of Christ transmitted to the world by the Magisterium, you will remain devoid of holiness. In its place is found disobedience, distrust, selfishness, pride.
The readings for today’s Holy Mass remind us of the importance of the Christian virtue of obedience. For example, the reading from Sirach emphasizes how children are obliged to honor their father and mother:
God sets a father in honor over his children; a mother’s authority he confirms over her sons. Whoever honors his father atones for sins, and preserves himself from them. When he prays, he is heard; he stores up riches who reveres his mother. Whoever honors his father is gladdened by children, and, when he prays, is heard. Whoever reveres his father will live a long life; he who obeys his father brings comfort to his mother.
My son, take care of your father when he is old; grieve him not as long as he lives. Even if his mind fail, be considerate of him; revile him not all the days of his life; kindness to a father will not be forgotten, firmly planted against the debt of your sins —a house raised in justice to you. (3:2-6, 12-14)
The reading from Colossians speaks about the attributes and behavior of the holy person in relation to others. It gives a kind of rule for Christian life within the womb of the family:
Brothers and sisters: Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do. And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection. And let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as in all wisdom you teach and admonish one another, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (3:12-17)
The mark of holiness is displayed in free and loving obedience to God and his laws. We see this behavior played out perfectly in the Holy Family. In today’s gospel from Luke, chapter 2, Mary and Joseph present Jesus in the Temple located in Jerusalem:
When the days were completed for their purification according to the law of Moses, They took him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord, just as it is written in the law of the Lord, Every male that opens the womb shall be consecrated to the Lord, and to offer the sacrifice of a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons, in accordance with the dictate in the law of the Lord. (excerpt of the gospel, vs 22-24)
The law of Moses prescribed that every first-born male was to be consecrated to the Lord. This consecration symbolized a formal dedication of the child to God. Additionally, the birth of a male child disqualified an Israelite woman from approaching the Temple for a period of forty days due to legal impurity following the child’s birth. After this forty-day period, she was to offer ritual sacrifice in Jerusalem in order to restore her to legal purity (something which had nothing to do with moral impurity). The sacrifice of the poor was two turtledoves or two pigeons. Several of the Church Father’s noted that Mary had no need to atone for legal impurity; however, she conforms herself to the law of Moses in righteousness and to avoid scandal. She submits to this particular Mosaic law, although it was unnecessary for her. This follows the pattern of Jesus’ voluntary but unnecessary submission to baptism in the River Jordan by John, which was a baptism of repentance (Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, 110).
The point is, Mary and Joseph fulfill the law devoutly and perfectly. They do so because the Mosaic law is not a man-made law, but rather represents the law of God for the people Israel. Many other aspects of free and loving obedience to the will of God can be found in the lives of the Holy Family.
Recall how the young, pure, sinless and innocent Virgin Mary said “yes” to the mysterious plan of the Father, announced by the angel Gabriel, which entailed her giving birth to the Son of the Most-High God. Even though this plan of God remained obscured to her understanding, although it would mean great difficulty and extreme personal risk due to her pregnancy while betrothed to Joseph, Mary nevertheless desires to accomplish the will of God, regardless of its cost in her life.
After the Annunciation, she gives her fiat: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). In those words is found the true meaning of holiness.
And what about Joseph? We see the same dedication to the will of God in his life. Recall that when he discovered Mary’s pregnancy, he decided to dismiss her quietly because he was a “righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace” (Mt 1:19). However, when an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, telling him to take Mary as his wife, he faithfully and quickly complies with this command of the Lord.
Another example is found in the murderous intent of Herod, directed at the Christ Child. Joseph is warned in a dream by an angel of the Lord to take the Child and Mary and flee to the safety of Egypt. Again, this placed an extreme burden on the Holy Family. They were asked to suddenly uproot themselves from their home, journey to a foreign land by night to a strange land, a place in which they faced an unknown and uncertain future (see Mt 2:13 ff). Again, Joseph views the will of God as primary in his life. He faithfully gives himself over in free and loving obedience to the divine will. He does exactly as the angel of the Lord commanded: he takes his family by night to Egypt.
The Holy Family structured their lives within the context of God’s holy will. Their family life, activities and behavior, is founded upon obedience to God. This stands in stark contrast to the many ills affecting contemporary families and individuals who frequently make choices in disobedient opposition to the will of God.
Pope St. John Paul II noted in Familiaris Concortio:
The situation in which the family finds itself presents positive and negative aspects: the first are a sign of the salvation of Christ operating in the world; the second, a sign of the refusal that man gives to the love of God.
On the one hand, in fact, there is a more lively awareness of personal freedom and greater attention to the quality of interpersonal relationships in marriage, to promoting the dignity of women, to responsible procreation, to the education of children. There is also an awareness of the need for the development of interfamily relationships, for reciprocal spiritual and material assistance, the rediscovery of the ecclesial mission proper to the family and its responsibility for the building of a more just society. On the other hand, however, signs are not lacking of a disturbing degradation of some fundamental values: a mistaken theoretical and practical concept of the independence of the spouses in relation to each other; serious misconceptions regarding the relationship of authority between parents and children; the concrete difficulties that the family itself experiences in the transmission of values; the growing number of divorces; the scourge of abortion; the ever more frequent recourse to sterilization; the appearance of a truly contraceptive mentality.
At the root of these negative phenomena there frequently lies a corruption of the idea and the experience of freedom, conceived not as a capacity for realizing the truth of God’s plan for marriage and the family, but as an autonomous power of self-affirmation, often against others, for one’s own selfish well-being. (FC 6)
The Christian family is destined to be “a communion of persons, a sign and image of the communion of the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit” (CCC 2205). That is indeed a high and holy calling.
The Holy Family reminds us all of what it’s like to live within the context of God’s loving plan. It’s not always easy; it’s not a life for cowards. It has its costs and always includes personal sacrifice. But such a way of life, the way of holiness in free and loving obedience to God, is for everyone who desires the love of God. Everyone is called by God to holiness in his Son, Jesus Christ—a call that leaves out no one.
Is it possible? To live the life of holiness? God makes it possible for anyone who sincerely desires his love and the fullness of life he offers. To begin the journey, give yourself over in self-entrustment to Christ. Then live as he lived. Live as the Holy Family lived.
The life of holiness: it’s the key to happiness.
Photo Credit: Giovanni Bellini [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.