The family life of Jesus, Mary and Joseph in Nazareth is an ever-present revelation of God’s purposes and work in the world, inviting to holiness families of the 21st century.
Does the household of Jesus, Mary and Joseph in the small village of Nazareth, whose historical existence was two millennia ago, bear any relevance to a modern urban family of the third millennium? Considering all the pressures that families are under these days, how can they possibly relate to the quiet and hidden life of the Holy Family?
To claim the continued relevance of the Holy Family for families today can mean more than proposing the Holy Family as a model for families to imitate, although it can be that as well. More profoundly, we can recognize that every moment of Christ’s life—from his conception, to his ascension, and reign at the right hand of the Father—partakes in the divine infinity of the Second Person of the Trinity. Therefore, the efficacy of the particulars of Christ’s life are not limited by either place nor time. They are eternally present to us, inviting us to live his life in our own time and place. Whatever the circumstances in which we find ourselves, we can bring these circumstances into the grace and presence of Christ’s infinite divine life incarnated both historically and in an eternal reality available for us today.
The family life of Jesus, Mary and Joseph in Nazareth, we can say then, is an ever-present revelation of God’s purposes and work in the world, inviting to holiness families of the 21st century. The witness of holy Christian families made possible by this infinite fount of grace is especially critical to the evangelization of contemporary culture which is anti-family in so many ways. The particular mission of the Holy Family to guard and nurture the Christ Child as the One who would save his people is also a mission for all families who are called through baptism to spiritually support Christ’s mission in the world. To open up this reality, we can explore several particular aspects of the Holy Family’s life, and its relevance to this deeper Christian vocation for modern families. A few of these are as follows: the centrality of Christ; contemplation and silence; Joseph as “just man” and father; the dignity of work and ordinary life; personal presence among family members; domestic church. 1
The first obvious aspect of the Holy Family is that the Christ Child is the central focus of this family. At the Annunciation, when she accepts her calling to be the mother of God’s Son, Mary gives her whole being over to his life with both its joys and sorrows. Joseph accepts his vocation from the angel to be the guardian of Jesus and his mother. We often consider the vocations of Mary and Joseph as exceptional, rather than as God’s revelation to us of the universal human vocation to holiness made possible by the divine presence of Christ in every age. Like Mary and Joseph, each and every family is called to make Christ the center of their life together, so that the personal life of each member can be an incarnation of Jesus’ life through grace. Since “only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light,” (Vatican II: Gaudium et Spes, § 22), and since a person’s development begins in the family, the nurturing of each member of the family needs the presence of Christ, and his daily grace, so that each can be directed toward the true destiny of human life. This implies that the first responsibility of a family is to pray, worship and study the Scriptures together, reflecting on the significance of Christ’s mission for their family’s life together, and for each person’s development.
However, there is another important lesson to be learned from the Holy Family in Nazareth. Childhood is given a distinct value by the amount of time Christ spent in the simplicity, humility and dependence of his childhood years. When he later told his disciples: “Unless you become like a little child, you cannot enter the kingdom of God,” he had already lived the model of what he asks of us. What is it about the state of childhood that is so important for Christian disciples? The child is open, receptive, full of love to give to those who care for him, easily delighted in the littlest bits of the world presented to him, content to while away his time in play by which he contemplates the reality of things, trusting in the persons in his life, vulnerable in his dependence upon them. A child lives in the present, as God does. This state of childhood is given its greatest depth when we recall that Christ exists eternally as a child of the Father. The whole of the Son’s life is one of docile obedience and trusting love in relationship to the Father. “The Son can do nothing on his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing, for whatever he does, that the Son does likewise.” (Jn 5:19) When we live in Christ, therefore, we are living as a child before the Father, called to the same trust and obedience, the responsive love of a son in the Son, the contemplative receptivity to what is given, a life in the presence of God. Parents who are given the gift of a child have a precious time set before them to contemplate this state of childhood in the life of their own child, and within themselves, before the Father.
Contemplation and Silence
A pastor once began his homily by reversing a common saying: “Don’t do something, just stand there.” He then spoke of Mary who “kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19) as her response to the revelations about her child, Jesus. Silence and contemplation are an appropriate response to the awesome realities of the Incarnate Word made flesh. Pope Paul VI spoke beautifully of this, saying:
The school of the Holy Family…teaches us silence. Oh! That there would be reborn in us the esteem for silence, that wonderful and indispensable atmosphere of the spirit: while we are deafened by so many noises, sounds, and clamorous voices in the frantic and tumultuous times of modern life. Oh! Silence of Nazareth, teach us to be resolute in good thoughts, intent upon the interior life, ready to listen well to the secret inspirations of God, and the exhortations of the true masters. (Address at Nazareth, 1/5/64)
Mary is our model in this. From the moment of the Annunciation, during the months of her pregnancy, and on the day of Christ’s birth, she knew the presence of the Son, and contemplated this astounding reality with her mind and heart. In the home at Nazareth, she lived, gazing at the Christ, and pondering his words. Her entire life was, and is, a contemplation of the mystery of the incarnation, and redemption through her Son. She gives us the supreme example of interiority and prayer, proceeding from the fullness of the Holy Spirit given her. St. Joseph’s silence in the Gospel reveals a priority of faithful obedience to God’s direction, without drawing attention to himself. He lives humbly in the presence of the divine, simply carrying out the challenging vocation given him.
The virginity of both Mary and Joseph provides a freedom for spiritually-grounded love that bears fruit in contemplative growth. Living in the presence of the Second Person of the Trinity, we can only imagine how enraptured they could be with the Child Jesus, as in the holy joy Simeon expressed when holding the infant Jesus in the temple.
Infused with the sanctity of the Holy Spirit, and submitted to the Father, the Holy Family opens into the image of the Trinity. Here again, we should not consider this an anthropological exception, but rather the supreme model for all families. Man is made in the image of God, the Trinity, so all are called to follow the example of the Holy Family in contemplating Christ, pondering his words, receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit through the sacraments, and carrying on the Father’s work in the world. Moreover, the human family, in which the love of two bears fruit in a third person, is in itself an image of the Trinity, even though an imperfect one.
The example of the virginity of Mary and Joseph in no way subtracts from the goodness of the bodily conjugal act that is the vocation of the married couple, but points to the spiritual aspect of marital love, reminding us that the spirit in man is meant to direct the physical, and raise it to the human dignity God has meant it to have. The grace of the Holy Spirit gives the strength to resist sin that can disturb this right order. The virginity of Mary and Joseph elevates marital love to a sacred level, pointing to the eschatological perspective that the human body’s ultimate destiny is resurrected life. The example of their marriage highlights the deep spiritual potential of marital love, and the possibility of personal affectionate devotion that is pure, without self-centered indulgence. The marriage of Mary and Joseph was a true marriage, even without conjugal relations since, as St. Augustine pointed out, it had the three requisites of marriage: offspring, fidelity, and sacrament (indissolubility). This marriage, which receives at its beginning the saving grace of Christ’s presence, is the first sacramental marriage of the New Covenant, renewing what the first couple, Adam and Eve, had tainted with original sin, and restoring the centrality of pure love.
The “Just Man” Joseph
The scriptural description of Joseph as a “just man” means more than acting justly. It is the highest compliment that can be given: that a man is righteous before God in all his being. St. Joseph is considered by the Church to have the greatest dignity after Mary. God entrusted him with the most crucial task any man has been given, that of ensuring that the Savior of the world would be safe from harm, and nurtured within the fullness of the teaching and practice of Israel, God’s people, to whom the promise of the Messiah is given. His prompt and obedient response to this call reveals a life that had been lived in consistent faithfulness to all God required of him. He becomes then the second person of faith who “has believed that what the Lord has promised will be accomplished,” the principal cooperator with Mary in the mystery of salvation.
St. Joseph is of central importance as witness to the divinity of Christ. In service to the mystery of the Incarnation, he makes the gift of his own virginity in support of Mary’s sacred motherhood and immaculate virginity as handmaid of the Father, and spouse of the Holy Spirit. The truth of his marriage to Mary gave Joseph the legal, earthly fatherhood of Jesus. He is told to name the child, an important duty of a father in Israel, and being of the house of David, Joseph bequeaths to Jesus his ancestry. His fatherhood is a model for all fathers. His role in dedication to the Redeemer, to God’s plan of salvation, to the traditions of God’s chosen people in prayer, celebration and fidelity to God’s commandments, is a calling for all fathers. St. Joseph’s example as a man of prayer is revealed to us in his actions, which demonstrate a consciousness of the purpose given his life as revealed to him by the angel, the fruit of an interior readiness to hear the word of God and to obey it in concrete situations. His active response of energetic implementation required courage, faith, self-denial, and zeal for God’s work.
Work and Ordinary Life Dignified
Jesus spent 30 years, out of his life of 33 years, in the quiet village of Nazareth, learning to work beside Joseph and Mary, carrying on this work as a young adult from the age of 18 to 30 years, with no public notice that here was the Son of God, the Messiah. Why? Does this seem to us to be a waste of divine energy? All that God does, however, has infinite meaning. The Son of God comes humbly to share our ordinary human life in all its mundane detail. At 12 years of age, Luke’s gospel tells us, Jesus spoke with wisdom and insight to the elders of Israel, and clearly knew who his Father was. Could he not have been tempted to stay in his Father’s house, the Temple, to be “about his Father’s work?” Yet, he returned to Nazareth with Mary and Joseph, living in obedience to his legal Jewish father, and in loving consideration for his mother. These 30 years of Jesus’ family life can remind us that the greatest part of evangelization in the good news of the gospel happens through sanctifying the ordinary life of families.
Christ’s divine dedication to life in a family, supported by the work of both father and mother, reveals the dignity and significance he attributes to our simple family-centered labors. Modern society tells us we are only important if we achieve something of note in the public world, and tends to ignore what is accomplished in a family home dedicated to nurturing growing persons in the true depth of a full humanity, with its spiritual, as well as physical, development. Mothering and fathering is often not considered “work” with value because a dollar sign cannot be attached to it. Yet, it requires a great deal of time and energy, investment of money, dedication and reflection. Moreover, the work of the child in learning how to be in the world, under the guidance of parents, is crucial to society as well as to the child. It must not be shortened by pushing the child out into the wider world too soon in the haste to produce independent little adults.
Sometimes, work by hand, manual labor, and domestic chores are demeaned. It must have been a very deliberate choice for the “Son of Man” to work as a carpenter, respecting the qualities of wood, the purposefulness of tools, dedication to excellence in what is produced, the service to community needs. Jesus learns the particulars of all of this from Joseph, who is the model of a father’s vocation to teach his child the specific knowledge needed to live productively in the world. One can imagine him learning from Joseph how to be a good tradesman, developing positive relationships in his community, visiting nearby towns, developing insight into ordinary people’s lives. In the meantime, Mary is quietly working in the background to provide well-prepared food, clean clothes, a peaceful, beautiful, and holy environment in which work can proceed in an orderly manner, the fruit of a contemplative attitude. Young women of today, sadly, are too often taught to disdain the work of wife and mother in the home, and exchange this important work in order to be the paid employee in an environment which may be sterile of spiritual and deeply human qualities. The lofty goal of imitating Mary, the Mother of God, is not held up because it requires too much selfless humility. Yet, our society desperately needs precisely this selfless dedication to home and family in order to bring order, beauty, health, and secure love into human relationships. Those who are selflessly following this vocation need to be supported with our esteem, recognized for their critical contribution to the human and spiritual development of persons who contribute to society, and to the growth of God’s kingdom in the world. At the same time, the men and women who are working at jobs outside the home, can also draw on the values modeled by the Holy Family in order to contribute to a truly human and spiritually-grounded work environment, knowing that the life of the Holy Family is made eternally present to them in Christ.
If we are to take seriously the words of Blessed John Paul II, that:“Families, become what you are” (Familiaris Consortio, §17), we must not lose the particular gift of family life which is the personal, bodily presence of family members to each other. Families have a particular calling to live the incarnate life of Christ, giving flesh to love in a direct bodily response to the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of spouses and children. Intentional love expressed externally to the other affirms a healthy integration of body and soul. Psychologists have testified to the importance of touch for a person’s emotional and social development. This is particularly crucial for infants and toddlers, but for all ages the warmth and compassion of an affection hug or touch brings peace, relaxation, and love that strengthens relationships, emotional security, and sexual development. There is power in bodily presence at the physical, psychic and spiritual levels. The personal communion thus established between parents and children helps develop the full possession of self that is needed to lead an integrated human life. Mothers, who breast feed their child, provide the comfort of human touch, as well as face to face contemplation that is an irreplaceable gift of emotional-spiritual health, as well as physical nourishment, benefiting the mother as well. Images of Mary breast-feeding Jesus were common in Christian art until the time when nannies replaced the mother in upper-class families. In these paintings, one can contemplate Jesus gazing upon Mary’s face turned to him in adoration. Here, there is silent bodily communication of giving and receiving in the presence of the Word of God.
The particular charism of Mary and Joseph, living in the presence of Christ in their house in Nazareth, is available to the Christian family through the graces of baptism and matrimony. Each member of the family can bring the presence of Christ to the other in receiving the other’s presence with openness and love. The reduction of bodily presence, brought about by industrialization and technology, poses a challenge for modern families. There is nothing that can replace direct face-to-face communication in the physical presence of a beloved family member. Throughout the Scriptures, man expresses longing to see the face of the Father. “Your face do I seek;” “Make your face smile upon me.” Such a longing is implicit in family life, and is a call to family members to image the smile of God to each other.
If the life of the Holy Family appears to us to be too far removed from reality, there is probably something amiss in our life, not in the family of Nazareth. This will take reflection to perceive the underlying values and qualities of the Holy Family. Our families, struggling to overcome sin, will not be any perfect mirror of the Holy Family, but nevertheless they can deepen and enrich their family life with this reflection. As members of Christ’s mystical body, each one is present to the Lord reigning at the right hand of the Father, and can, therefore, live in his light, and relive his life at all moments. This radical presence of Christ with us is the strength needed for us to be more present to each other. Awareness of this will develop a sense of reverence for each other, for a spouse, child, or parent, as known by God.
The Domestic Church
These reflections can lead us to realize that the family is a sanctuary of God’s life and, therefore, the church at its most basic level. The family as domestic church is at the heart of the mission of the Church, and its task of evangelization. It has its first roots in the covenant God made with the people of Israel, whose mission of faithfulness was passed from family to family in descent from Abraham to the Son of David, Jesus Christ. A remote preparation for the family as domestic church can be found in Jewish traditional, religious practice lived primarily within the family. The family was considered a blessing from God, the carrier of the covenant. The holiness code of Jewish life purifies the family to be capable of worship, to set it apart from surrounding pagan cultures, to distinguish between life and death, to give thanks for creation, and the covenant God made with his people. Time is made holy through a rhythm of life marked by the Sabbath, the purification rituals, and the festivals. Husband and wife honor the sacredness of sexuality by remaining apart for 12 days during, and following, the menstrual period, after which the wife enters the mikvah bath, to purify her body in holiness for the marital act. This raises their one-flesh unity to a spiritual level, requiring self-control, and reverence for each other. Space is made holy with practices such as the mark of blood on the doorpost, the building of the mikvah bath, the blessings of food and household. The father of the family is responsible to lead the family in prayer, to educate them in the Scriptures, to ensure the appropriate rituals are followed.
One of the first rituals is the redemption of the first-born, based on the Exodus. At the birth of the first child, who opens the womb, the father must offer the child to God, after which he is asked: “Do you redeem him?” The father’s acceptance of the child through redemption by an offering (such as a dove for poor families) has a psychological/spiritual effect, drawing the father into acting on behalf of God, teaching the Torah, and the responsibilities of the covenant. All sons are circumcised, which connects them to the saving event of the Passover. The feast of the Passover is carried out in a family household, sometimes with a group of small families. The father leads his family spiritually out of slavery into the freedom and protection of being God’s people. The people of God is constituted through families.
Mary and Joseph, a faithful God-fearing Jewish couple, lived this life, giving it the fullness of their dedication to the Father, their union with the Holy Spirit, and their love for the Son. Luke’s gospel tells us that they went to the Temple for the presentation of Jesus to Yahweh at the time of the purification of Mary. They could have questioned the necessity of these practices since they knew Jesus was directly from God, and Mary was full of the Holy Spirit, a virgin and sinless. Yet, they did all that was required in honor of the holiness of their people. They went up to Jerusalem for the Passover every year, even though this was only required for those who lived within 15 miles of Jerusalem, and only for the men of the family. Jesus went to the synagogue in Nazareth regularly “as his custom was on the sabbath day”(Luke 4:16).
The Holy Family of Nazareth is a source of holiness for all families. The presence of Christ, and the proleptic application of his redemptive grace, means that the Holy Family is already the domestic church in its reality as the first basic cell of the Church. Mary, mother of the Church, is already mediating Christ to the world. Joseph, patron of the Church, protects Christ’s life in faithfulness to the Father, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are intimately present in the domestic church of the Holy Family, the first realization on earth of perfect communion. Salvation passes through the Holy Family to us, revealing what God intended “in the beginning.” The Holy Family is, therefore, not an exception, but is a revelation and renewal of God’s original plan for all.
However, the fullness is yet to come. There is birth of a new family at the Cross, when Jesus gives John to Mary as a new son. She gives her son, Jesus, back to the Father, and is now recognized as Mother of the Church, the new people of God. After Christ sends the gift of the Holy Spirit to the disciples at Pentecost, and 3,000 are baptized, this inaugurates the visible Church, the new Christians. They were primarily Jewish, and would likely have continued their traditional family life in its sacred practices, now deepened in light of the Resurrection. They were now a new creation through baptism and the Eucharist, living in the new covenant established by Christ. The Christian families of the early Church would have found it natural to live family holiness as the domestic church.
According to the theological reflection of Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the ecclesial dimension of the Christian family is founded upon its existence as the created image of the Trinity, and its calling to be an extension of the mission of the Trinity, to the world. The Christian family exists, in fact, as a sacrament of the Trinity. It makes present the communion, distinction of persons, and unity that exists in the Trinity in the created world. .The Holy Spirit, as the bond of love between the Father and the Son, is also the bond of indissoluble fidelity of Christian sacramental marriage. He is the Third Person of the fruitfulness of the Father and Son’s love that gives life.
The sacramental character of the Christian family proceeds from the inmost being of the couple, not as something imposed externally. As baptized persons, the spouses are the object of Christ’s love for his bride, the Church, and in their sacramental marriage they image this faithful love of Christ for the Church. But more than an image, marriage is the living realityh and visible signh of God’s love operating in the world, and a sanctuary of life given by God. The couple’s openness to life is not only in bodily fecundity, but also in spiritual fecundity, through the gift of the divine Third Person. The personhood of each is grounded in Christ’s union of his divine Person with his humanity, and, therefore, includes the mission which is an intrinsic part of personhood, predestined to Christ, through his grace. The family, therefore, is at the heart of the mission of the Trinity in the world, and of the Church, which exists as a sacramental sign of Christ’s presence in the world. The family participates in the Trinity’s continuous exchange of communion in self-gift to the other, which brings forth life in new sons and daughters of God. This is the fulfillment of persons in the truth of love, and the delight of self-gift to the other. The deepest desires of man meet and cooperate with the desire of his Creator. The reality of sin with which the family struggles, finds its response in Christ’s grace made available to them by the Church, most particularly in the Eucharist, which is essential to this life. The Holy Family, as the first domestic church, with its concrete actualization of the life of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is for the Christian family, the model and source of grace for their own cooperation in Christ’s mission.
These are some basic insights into the importance of the Holy Family for the life of today’s Christian families. Specific religious practices in the home will be deepened by meditating on the Holy Family, and the contemplative richness of the home in Nazareth, as ordinary, sacred, and eternally present to us.
Stratford Caldecott, “The Family at the heart of a Culture of Life,” Communio 23, Spring 1996.
Joseph F. Chorpenning, “John Paul II”s Theology of the Mystery of the Holy Family,” Communio 28, Spring 2000, 140-166.
John Paul II, Redemptoris Custos (1989); Familiaris Consortio (1981); Mulieris Dignitatem (1988), Letter to Families (1994).
Pope Leo XIII, Quamquam Pluries, Encyclical On Devotion to St. Joseph (1889).
Cardinal Marc Ouellet, Divine Likeness: Toward a Trinitarian Anthropology of the Family, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2006).
John Saward, Redeemer in the Womb: Jesus Living in Mary, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993); Cradle of Redeeming Love: The Theology of the Christmas Mystery, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2002).
Cardinal Angelo Scola, The Nuptial Mystery, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2005).
Hans urs von Balthasar, Unless You Become Like This Child, (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 1991).
- Dr. Mary Shivanandan addressed these topics in a course, The Holy Family: New Perspectives for Theology, at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies in Marriage and Family, Washington, D.C. ↩