Meditating on the Holy Family

Jesus Christ did not wish to be born into a wealthy family, nor to choose parents who were illustrious for their learning. He was content with their piety. Following his example, let us rejoice not in the brilliance of our family, but in its good examples and edifying behavior, and that it is a true school of religion where we learn to fear God and to serve him.

Joseph and Mary, according to the precept of the Law, went to Jerusalem “every year at the feast of the Passover” (Luke 2:41). They took with them their dear Son, always submissive to his mortal parents, who allowed himself to be instructed by this holy observance. He was, of course, there before they took him, for he was the very basis of the feast, the true lamb who would be sacrificed and consumed in memory of our passage to the next life. One year at the feast, Jesus made it known that his submission did not stem from the infirmity of his youth, but instead from a more profound source. To accomplish this mystery, he chose the age of twelve years, an age at which children become capable of sound reasoning. This he did so as not to appear to have left nature behind, but instead to have followed its normal course.

Jesus’ abandonment of his holy Mother and St. Joseph was not a punishment of them, but instead a trial. We do not read that they left him from negligence or because of some other fault; it was, therefore, for the sake of their humiliation. Jesus left them when it pleased him to do so; “we do not know whence he comes or whither he goes” (cf. John 3:8). He passed “through the midst of them” and “went away” (Luke 4:30), and they did not know it. The holy Child had disappeared, and they were anxious and sorrowful, for they did not find him “among their kinsfolk and acquaintances” (Luke 2:44). How many times did St. Joseph reproach himself for his carelessness with his sacred trust? Who is not touched to the quick with him, and with the most tender Mother and best spouse who ever lived?

This article is from a meditation in Meditations on Mary. Click image to preview other meditations.

His parents were astonished to find him “in the temple, sitting among the teachers” (Luke 2:46). This shows that they had hitherto seen nothing extraordinary about his life, for everything had been veiled under the shadows of childhood. And Mary, who was the first to be aware of the loss of her dear son, was also the first to complain about his absence. “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously” (Luke 2:48). We note that she said “your father and I”: she called St. Joseph his father, for indeed he was, not only by his adoption of the holy child, but also by sentiment, by his care for him, and through the sorrow that made Mary say, “Your father and I have been looking for you anxiously.” They were joined in their affliction, because although Joseph did not have any part in his birth, he nevertheless felt the joy of having Jesus and the sorrow of losing him. An obedient and respectful wife, Mary named Joseph first: “your father and I,” and paid him the honor of speaking of him like any other father. O Jesus, how well-ordered was everything in your family life.

“And he went down with them and came to Nazareth” (Luke 2:51). We must not lose a single word of this holy text; the Evangelist says that he “went down” with them to Nazareth. After having strayed for a while to do the work of his Father, he returned to his ordinary conduct, to the ways of his parents, to obedience. And this is perhaps, in a mystical mode, what accounts for the phrase “he went down,” but in any case it is true that he placed himself between their hands until his baptism, that is, until the age of almost thirty years, and did nothing other than obey them.

We should be astonished by the word: was that then the whole work of Jesus Christ, the Son of God? His entire duty was to obey two of his creatures. With regard to what did he obey them? In the lowest of activities, in the practice of a mechanical art? Who are they who weep and complain when the work they are assigned does not correspond to their talents, or rather to their pride? Let them come to the home of Joseph and Mary, and let them see Jesus at work there. We do not ever read that his parents had domestic servants; like other poor folk, they had only their children, their Child, to serve them. Jesus himself said that he came “to serve” (Matt. 20:28). When he went to the desert, the angels were obliged to come and serve him, for we never see him with servants at his beck and call. What is known is that he himself worked in his father’s workshop (cf. Matt. 13:55).

And there is considerable evidence to suggest that he lost his father well before the time of his ministry. At his Passion, he left his Mother in the care of his Beloved Disciple, who received her into his home, which would not have happened if Joseph had still been alive. From the beginning of his ministry, we see Mary together with Jesus at the wedding feast at Cana, but there is no mention of Joseph. A little while later, we see him go to Capernaum with his Mother, his brethren, and his disciples (see John 2:12), and Joseph is not named. Mary often appears elsewhere, but after what is said about Jesus’ education under the guidance of St. Joseph, we do not again hear about this holy man. This is why at the beginning of his ministry, when he comes to speak in his own country, the people said, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?” (Mark 6:3). We see him, without shame, supporting a widowed Mother by his own labor and undertaking the petty commerce of his trade that allowed the two of them to live. “Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brethren James and Joseph and Simon and Judas?” (Matt. 13:55). They do not speak of his father, because, it seems, he had already died. Jesus Christ served him during his final illness.

Happy the father who had such a son to close his eyes! Truly, he died in his arms and, as it were, with a kiss from the Lord. Jesus stayed with his Mother to console her, to serve her: this was the whole of his employment.

O God, what a moving spectacle! O Pride: down on your knees! Jesus, the son of a carpenter, a carpenter himself, was known by his trade, without anything else being said about him. During the early days of the Church, the memory of carts that he had made was kept alive; the tradition of them is preserved among the earliest authors. Let then those who live by such an art be consoled and rejoice: Jesus is one of them. Let them learn from him to praise God while they work, to sing psalms and holy songs, and let them know that God will bless their work, and they will be like other Christs.

There have been those who have been ashamed to see the Savior at this kind of work, and they would have had him working miracles from his earliest youth. Such tales they tell of the miracles he wrought in Egypt! Yet all of this exists only in the apocryphal books. The Gospel sums up thirty years of the life of Jesus in these words: “and he was obedient to them” (Luke 2:51), together with these: “the carpenter, the son of Mary.” In the obscurity of St. John the Baptist there is something more imposing, for he never appeared among men and “he was in the wilderness” (Luke 1:80). Yet Jesus, in so ordinary a life, was in truth known, but by his lowly work alone.

Could he have been any better hidden than he was? What shall we say, what shall we do to praise him? There is in truth nothing for us to do but to admire him in silence.

Editor’s note: This article is from a meditation in Bishop Bossuet’s Meditations on Marywhich is available through Sophia Institute Press. The featured image is an icon of The Nativity and The Adoration of the Magi, a 16th century icon in the Benaki Museum (Wikimedia Commons).

Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet

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Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627–1704) was a theologian and French bishop. With a great knowledge of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, he devoted himself to writing in a way that was approachable to every person. Though lionized by the great English converts such as Waugh, Belloc, and Knox, his writing has only recently been made available in English. His Meditations for Advent is available from Sophia Institute Press.

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