God’s plan was for us his ultimate creation to be nurtured within a loving family. We know how being a part of a family encompasses moments of great joy and moments of great pain. We know and understand how families should provide us with security, love, affirmation, discipline and direction. We also understand how families can cause deep wounds on those it should be nurturing. We see the damage created within families impacting one’s ability to love or trust others. Families are not perfect, but they are the center piece of God’s plan to teach us how to sacrifice for the good of all members; how to look beyond events in order to forgive and how to love unconditionally.
God himself taking on our humanity became part of family. We do not have many insights into the family life of Mary, Joseph and Jesus. In fact, we only have a few references in the scriptures of their life together. We know that Joseph’s initial reaction to Mary’s pregnancy was to quietly divorce her and not expose her to the law. We know an angel spoke to him one night so he would marry her and accept the child. We know they had an arduous journey of approximately 100 miles to Bethlehem when Mary was in her final trimester. We know that they were without family support on the night Christ was born. We know they fled to Egypt while Jesus was still an infant and eventually made the trip back to Israel after Herod’s death. So for the first decade of their life it was just Jesus, Mary and Joseph without any interaction with their relatives. We know when Jesus was 12 they traveled to Jerusalem where Simeon spoke to Mary about Jesus and we know how he remained in the temple as the family left to return to Nazareth.
The scriptures tell us that after the temple incident, he returned to Nazareth and was obedient to them. So for the 30 years Jesus spent with Joseph and Mary we can only make assumptions about their family life. But since we do have some knowledge of life in Nazareth at that time, we have to know their life included the normal struggles of every family. We don’t like to think of Mary washing clothes, cleaning house, taking care of shopping and teaching her child. It is too easy for us to conclude that their life was somehow different from all other families because Jesus was God incarnate, Mary was without sin and Joseph had angels speaking to him. That cannot be the case since life in Nazareth was hard, Joseph was poor and the Roman occupation was unrelenting on it demands for taxes. We also know that Jesus was tempted in every way that we are tempted. Therefore the complications, difficulties, misunderstandings and challenges of family life were no different for them as it is for us.
If we believe their life was immune to the normal relationship struggles of family life we will never discover the lessons of Jesus taking on our humanity. When God created us in his image he looked at us and said we were “very good.” Adam’s sin cost us our glory and our goodness but by Jesus taking on our humanity he once again sanctified us restoring our glory. By Jesus entering into a family from infancy to adulthood he shows us the family is a source of sanctification and growing into holiness.
In Cleveland, Ohio, I often visited the Benedictine Abbey. I found a quiet peacefulness in the chapel and on the grounds. It in one way it was holy ground and I often mistook its quietness as a way to achieve holiness. I discovered several spiritual truths in my own search for holiness and one of those truths is that within the conflicts of family life we find opportunities for more spiritual growth than we do in the peace of an Abbey. This is because within the walls of the abbey we are welcome visitors but we are not part of the brotherhood of monks. The quietness of an Abbey is deceiving to us as outsiders because at the heart of the abbey are human’s existing as a family. The monks have the same struggles that we have with parental authority, siblings and favoritism.
It is in the interaction of family life that we discover love, forgiveness, sacrifice and humility. Family life offers us the opportunity as children, parents, husbands or wives a place where we can profoundly discover the love of God. It is in family life that as children we learn to trust each other and by trusting we learn to trust in the promises of God. It is in family that as parents we learn to nurture others and we learn to sacrifice for their welfare. As we nurture our children we begin to understand how we can submit to the nurturing of God. It is in family that every member is daily given the opportunity to become peace makers and learn forbearance. It is in the family that the gifts of the Spirit are in full display – love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23).
Let us look beyond the holy card version of Mary, Joseph and Jesus’ family life in order to understand what family life offers us. It is the fulfillment of the command to love God and neighbor.