Catholics will be hearing a lot about Jesus, Mary and Joseph during the next few weeks.
Their stories are sprinkled generously throughout the Scripture readings for the Advent and Christmas seasons, describing what happened to the Holy Family before, during and after the birth of Jesus. These are familiar tales: stories of the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary; of Jesus’ humble birth and beginnings; of the visits he received from shepherds and Magi; and several years later, his prolonged stay in a Jerusalem temple while his parents frantically searched for him.
On the surface, these stories may seem far removed from most people’s daily experience, and it may be a stretch for people to relate the Holy Family’s lives to those of their own families, noted Father George Heyman, director of community education at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Pittsford. After all, most people today probably wouldn’t relish the thought of riding for days on donkeys and camels, but Mary, Jesus and Joseph probably would have been equally perturbed by sport-utility vehicles and cell phones.
And yet these seemingly quaint stories actually do have relevance in our lives today on a number of levels, Father Heyman said.
One of the most important aspects of these stories, Father Heyman said, is that they show us Jesus was human. This sounds simple and obvious, he noted, but is a really big deal when you really think about the fact that God, who is all-powerful, became human like us.
“It’s a powerful, earth-shattering, earth-changing event,” Father Heyman said. “God could have become a Martian, God could have become a Klingon, but no, God deemed to become human.”
The Incarnation — or the act of God becoming human in the form of Jesus — is a crucial part of the Catholic faith. Father Heyman said he suspects Matthew and Luke put so much emphasis on Jesus’ humanity in order to counter an early heretical theory that Jesus was not fully human, and to affirm the Incarnation, which shows the extent of God’s love for humanity. Thus, the Incarnation should be a reminder to all Catholics to love each other the way God does, he said.
Hearing stories of Jesus’ interactions with his family also helps Catholics understand that God is not outside of our experience, noted Father John Colacino, CPPS, professor of religious studies at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford.
During the months of December and January, Catholics celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family as well as the solemnities of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary; the Nativity of the Lord; the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God; and the Epiphany.
“All these feasts speak to us about God’s presence in ordinary human life and history and culture. The whole Advent, Christmas and Epiphany cycle reminds us that God has become incarnate, in a particular time, in a particular place in life,” Father Colacino said.
Since Christmas is commonly seen as a time for family, it only makes sense for us to want to hear about Jesus and his own family during this particular time, Father Heyman remarked.
Through the Incarnation, God not only took on a human body, but also became united to us in human nature, noted Deacon John Brasley, coordinator of ecumenical and interreligious affairs and community support services for the Diocese of Rochester. In January 2007 he and his wife, Belinda, recorded a podcast about what Catholics today can learn from the feast of the Holy Family.
As a human family, the Holy Family experienced the ups and downs of the human experience, including family life,” Deacon Brasley noted in the podcast, which may be found at www.dor.org.
“Joseph is a saint, Mary is conceived without sin, and Jesus is the incarnation of God incarnate, yet they still face challenges, difficulties, tense moments and occasions for misunderstanding. Welcome to real family life,” added Belinda Brasley, youth minister for Rochester’s Cathedral Community.
By becoming human, Jesus made human life holier and more dignified, and transformed the natural family into a channel for growth and holiness, Deacon Brasley said. This contradicts the often-held belief that the serious pursuit of holiness requires Catholics to opt out of marriage and instead enter into ordained or religious life, Belinda Brasley said. The feast of the Holy Family turns this notion on its head, reminding us that baptized Christians in all states in life — children, teens, husbands, wives and parents — all have opportunities to grow in faith, hope and love, Deacon Brasley said.
“Jesus, Joseph and Mary spent much of their earthly existence going about the ordinary routines of daily life. The secret to holiness is not in doing extraordinary things, but in doing ordinary things with great love and gratitude,” Belinda Brasley remarked. “We are holy because we’re trying to live our lives according to the example of the Holy Family. … Our holiness comes in trying to be the best family we can be.”
Call to Action
Mary, in particular, provides a shining example of faithful discipleship, said Dr. Linda MacCammon, professor of religious studies at St. John Fisher College. The Gospel reading for the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary comes from the first chapter of Luke and tells of Mary’s visit from the angel Gabriel, who announced she would give birth to the son of God. As an unwed young woman in those times, Mary risked becoming an outcast and jeopardized her future marriage by accepting this task, MacCammon said.
“It’s an incredible degree of trust … which is why she’s looked upon as a great disciple,” she said.
Later in the same chapter of Luke we find Mary’s Magnificat, in which she gives thanks to God and describes how he will show mercy to those who fear him, feed the hungry, topple rulers from their thrones and lift up the lowly.
“This is radical stuff. This is an upheaval of the usual social norms,” MacCammon said. “It is setting the tone for the ministry of Jesus. It’s not one to go along with the status quo. It’s one to challenge it.”
The Magnificat is a call to action, a call to question the status quo and work to right the injustices we see in society, she said. The poorest among us are harmed every day by their poor economic situations and a broken health-care system, she said, and Catholics have a responsibility to love their neighbors, take care of each other, and try to make the kingdom of God a reality here and now.
“We have to be willing to risk, we have to be willing to struggle, we have to be willing to question and not accept the status quo, and with that comes pain, there’s no question, but with that also comes hope,” MacCammon said.
Although she risked everything, Mary did so with faith and hope, knowing that God would be with her, just as he is with us, MacCammon noted.
“We are not going to be left alone in the dark,” she said.