Sisters, I confess that I stumbled when I read the Roman Missal Collect for our feast today. It was the phrase, "the shining example of the Holy Family .... that we may imitate them," that made me trip. Now, I understand that these prayers, composed during the 1960s, were offered to inspire and encourage families, but ... "Imitate the shining example of the Holy Family"? There is a certain unreality here — a disconnect between the intended message and the reality of the life we know.
I understand that the Roman Church and Ignatius Press (from whom we have bought many DVDs and books) cannot resist the sentimental image of two teenagers destined to join on a holy mission, banding together through an unfeeling world. We love the image of the young Joseph so in love with his April bride, Mary. We watch them protecting their tender baby, Jesus, held in their adoring arms. This picture is just ..... irresistable. But, however it melts the heart, it is not the true picture, as best we can tell, of what really happened.
The perpetual virginity of Mary was honored from the beginnings of our faith, even before the death and passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. And it has been revered ever since. We must accept it, therefore, as being true. To do otherwise is to mock God. That Jesus was referred to "Son of the Mary" (Mk 6:3) instead of "Jesus bar Joseph" is a fact having great gravity. Such a manner of address would have been unthinkable .... and unsaid in first-century Judea or Galilee except in the case of insult or accusation. In fact, like the Gospels in general which are unflattering (to say the least) of the Apostles, this ugliness helps us to gauge its authenticity. Else, it would never have been preserved.
Moreover, the scenario of an old man and his sons caring for a virgin and her mysterious child is the only one that makes sense and helps us to understand other statements such as "the brothers of the Lord." And we have no reason to doubt the authenticity, veracity, or spiritual gravitas of the Protoevangelium of St. James, from which we receive this ancient picture of Mary and Joseph. Perhaps written around the same time as the Gospel of St. John, we may be sure that both Gospels had a long oral history before they were reduced to writing. The stated author is Joseph's son James, who became the first Bishop of Jerusalem and the acknowledged leader of the most important See of the Apostolic Age. He presided over the Church's first Ecumenical Council.
In this Gospel we meet with Mary who is consecrated to God before her conception and who is raised in the Temple, even the Holy of Holies, as a Jewish counterpart to a Roman vestal virgin. Then there is Joseph. He is an older widower of the House of David. He has sons that seem to be roughly Mary's age. He is a man who has seen life and bears all the scuff marks of a seasoned carpenter who has raised boys alone. And now, following an exercise in divine discernment, he is told that he has a new vocation: to become the guardian of the young virgin Mary. No, this in not the average family, to be sure. Not the "Donna Reed Show" or "Leave It to Beaver" or "Father Knows Best"!
Sisters, have you ever read the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton? Then you know his mind and voice: thoughtful, reflective, and practical right down to the polished nail heads of our spiritual floorboards. Through a recording that seems to have been made by someone in the audience, I heard him addressing a group of young novices at the Abbey of Our Lady at Gethsemani, Kentucky. The subject was religious life. He began by saying that the ordinary state of Christian life was marriage and family. And this simple statement caused a stir from the start. Wait a minute, one novice asked, weren't Trappist monks the ordinary state of Christian life — the life that every should strive to live under Heaven's gaze? How could Merton say that married people should deserve this high distinction? Merton pointed out to them that if monastic life were the ordinary state of life, then humanmind would rapidly vanish. "We are freaks," he told them. "Not the norm." He admitted, "Yes, we seek holiness, but our pattern of life is not the ordinary state of life. Far from it!"
Let's take a minute to reflect on the Holy Family in view of Christian life and its norms. As our narrative unfolds, we meet with Mary first. She is the first person born without sin since the creation of Eve. Her nursery is transformed into a sanctuary into which no impure thing or person is permitted to enter. She is presented at the Temple at age three and never again leaves until she is a young teenager. She is admitted into the Holy of Holies and is fed by the hands of angels. The vocation of family, as we understand it, was never intended for her.
Next, let's turn to the figure of Jesus. He is the Eternal Word, the Creator of the world, the Father's self-begotten instrument. Yes, He is fully human, of Mary's pure substance, but we must never forget that He is also fully God, having divine will and divine energy. He is not the bouncing, baby boy running up and down the hall with his toys while Joseph and Mary enjoy cuddling in their double bed.
Who is to become the guardian of this vestal virgin once she comes to the age of menses and must leave the Temple (becoming ritually unclean)? And who will become the protector of God's Son on earth? We now see the wiry image of the carpenter-farmer entering the picture. He is an old man with sons, whom he fears will laugh at him if he should become betrothed, after a fashion, to the teenage Mary. We can see his determined, wrinkled visage as he protests to the priests: "This is a mistake as plain as the nose on my face! No! You're going to have find someone else for this, this .... arrangement .... someone without boys!" But the High Priest Zechariah prevails upon him: "Has he know fear of God?" And grudgingly he accepts this unexpected task, which, he rightly divines, will utterly change his life. Later on, can you picture him standing in a dark room talking to an angel? It is still several hours before first light. "Where are we going now?!" he growls. "Egypt?! Okay, everybody, wake up. We're taking Mary and the baby to Egypt."
No. This is not the shining example of "the family." But let us pause to consider a different word in this phrase. Not Family, but Holy. What is set before us is not family life, but rather the royal invitation to holy life. First, there is Mary. Her spirituality lies in her purity and innocence. She is not a person of the mind. She does not understand so many things as they eventuate. She finds Jesus in the Temple debating with the learned doctors, and she and Joseph walk away still befuddled after Jesus explains everything to them (Luke 2:50). She is hurt by the talk about Jesus among the villagers in Nazareth, that He is crazy and suffers from delusions of grandeur. She tries to fetch him, along with Joseph's sons, to bring him home and perhaps to restrain him. But Jesus sends her away, even disowns her before the onlooking students (Mark 3:31ff). She is hurt and confused. Now, a theologian upon hearing Gabriel's Annuncation and then watching events unfold might have said, "I could have predicted all this!" But that is not Mary. Her pure and simple heart excels in love, not in sleuthing.
Next, there is Joseph. He is where most of us begin on our spiritual journey. He reminds me of priests I have known who have confided that the three words they fear most are Fiat voluntus tua, "Thy will be done!" Or a Catholic bishop I once worked for who asked me, "Have you ever pushed the red button when calls come in on your cell phone, Father? How about calls from God?" Poor, old Joseph. He has been working from before dawn till dusk all these years plying his trade, raising his sons, and tilling his land. He's been looking forward to a time when all the demand might let up a little. He's made certain modest plans. But suddenly his life is turned upside down and he accepts this unexpected responsibility on account of his religious obligations.
Isn't this where most of us begin? Worldly and a little crusty and not particularly lost in prayer for hours and hours? But then, on a day, we begin to notice that the state of our souls is, well, not what God expected of us. And soon, looking at Mary, we recall the purity and sense of wonder of our youth. The simple and innocent love we knew. And before long we want to be a little more like Mary and little less like our wonted selves. We begin to notice that some of what interests Mary interests us, too, and that the way she views the world has crept into our own conceptions. And we begin to want for ourselves what she has, which is holiness.
The destination of spiritual journey is Jesus. Having Mary's substance, Jesus is beyond even His heavenly mother in simplicity, purity, innocence, constancy, and love. And, of course, this is God's great gift in the Advent of His Son: adoption. As St. Paul has written, we are to become the sons and daughters of God, co-heirs, and brothers and sisters to Jesus. This is more than family resemblance; this is participation in the Divine Life.
Joseph, Mary, and Jesus.
In them God invites us into the last, great adventure of our lives
to believe and accept the message of an angel;
to forget the lives we were going to live;
to journey into far countries from the ones we had planned on;
to bear burdens, even to the piercing of our hearts, .... or our hands and feet
as the world drops away at a distance that at length is eclipsed by the shadow of God's wing.
In Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.