When God breaks into human history, all the details of the story are important.
In the details, he’s trying to tell us something. Here’s one significant “detail” that merits our attention: When God sent us a Savior, he sent him by way of a family—the Holy Family of Nazareth.
God could have chosen another way. Maybe Jesus could have blazed to earth like some superhero from another planet, or just shown up as a mysterious stranger. But the fact is that the Father entrusted his Son to human parents, Mary and Joseph.
What can we learn from the fact that Jesus had an earthly family? What does it mean for parents and children today? And is there anything about the Holy Family’s home life that we can imitate?
An obvious way to approach these questions is to take a closer look at the family that Jesus grew up in. What was it like, in God’s own family home?
It’s hard to say, at first glance. Though two of the Gospels—Matthew and Luke—describe the events surrounding Jesus’ birth, Scripture offers only one anecdote about his childhood: the family pilgrimage to the Jerusalem Temple (Luke 2:41-52). For this reason, Jesus’ growing-up years are often referred to as the “hidden life” in Nazareth.
Strange Speculations. Some early Christians were frustrated by Scripture’s lack of detail and tried to fill in the blanks by inventing spectacular stories. There are good reasons why we don’t find such stories in the Bible. The Church rejected them as untrue, and indeed they don’t reach the standard of miracles set in the real Gospels. “Superboy of Nazareth” works wonders to exact revenge, gain professional advantage, and ward off those who attack or insult him: none of this jives with the Jesus we know, who worked miracles in order to serve others and who patiently endured insults and even violence from those who opposed him.
No, we can be fairly certain that Jesus spent his childhood doing nothing spectacular. In fact, John tells us that he performed his first miracle when he changed water into wine at Cana (2:1-11). Apparently, the glory of God’s only Son was largely hidden for the first three decades of his earthly life.
So the question remains: What can we learn from the fact that God entered history by way of the family? Surely, we are called in some way to imitate the Holy Family. But how can we ever learn from what we cannot begin to see?
Discovering the “Hidden Life.” Fortunately, we can begin to catch glimpses into the “hidden life” as we reflect a bit more on the evidence from Scripture. The Catechism sums it up like this: “During the greater part of his life Jesus shared the condition of the vast majority of human beings: a daily life spent without evident greatness, a life of manual labor. His religious life was that of a Jew obedient to the law of God, a life in the community” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 531). This suggests a few lines of reflection.
Most obviously, the Holy Family had a deep spiritual life. As they raised Jesus, both Mary and Joseph set an example of prayer and trust in God. Each had heard and accepted God’s plan through the message of an angel—they were obedient and attuned to the Holy Spirit. They were steeped in Scripture, too. Mary’s prayer, the Magnificat, is rich in Old Testament quotations (Luke 1:46-55). Joseph also must have known his Scripture: Jewish fathers of his day had the main responsibility for instructing sons about God’s instructions and revelation to Israel.
From Jesus’ adulthood, we can glimpse the prayer life he learned from his parents. He prayed the morning offering of pious Jews (Mark 12:29-30). He prayed spontaneously. He took time to pray alone. Yet he also prayed with his friends. Jesus fasted and marked holy days. He traveled to Jerusalem to observe the Passover and other pilgrimage festivals of the Jewish year. All these habits he probably acquired from his home life in Nazareth. (You might make it a family project this year to look up and discuss some of these biblical examples of Jesus at prayer.)
Work, too, was important to Jesus’ family. Joseph, as the family breadwinner, was skilled in a trade that he passed along to Jesus. In adulthood, Jesus was called not just “Joseph’s son,” but “the carpenter’s son” (Luke 4:22; Matthew 13:55). The image of Joseph and Jesus working side by side in the workshop and on construction projects makes a statement about the essential dignity of work. It also suggests that they knew something about realities like on-the-job fatigue, fussy customers, and late payments!
It is a safe bet that the Holy Family’s lifestyle was very simple. Mary and Joseph were poor (recall Luke’s description of Jesus’ birth and presentation—2:1-24). They had to watch their spending. We can conclude from Jesus’ preaching that Mary was industrious and frugal in keeping a house. It was likely from her example that Jesus drew many of his favorite stories: a woman finding just the right cloth to patch a piece of clothing, a woman setting aside leaven for tomorrow’s baking, a widow searching her house for a lost coin.
Ordinary, Like Us. Hard work, struggling to meet the bills, taking long road trips, prayer, and simple devotions—this is what the real Gospels tell us about the Holy Family. It’s a far cry from the divine Dennis the Menace who drives his parents crazy by turning people into goats!
It’s so . . . ordinary. And in a way, isn’t that what makes it scary? From this perspective, we can understand why those long-ago yarn-spinners preferred to think of the Holy Family as a sort of benign Addams Family. If we emphasize how different they are, it lets us off the hook. Who could blame us for not imitating them?
If the Holy Family were so different from us, we’d be free of our obligation to imitate them. But since Scripture and the Catechism are right, then we have a duty to make our homes holy as theirs was holy. The new year is an ideal time to take this goal more seriously than ever. Consider making some “new year’s resolutions” to help your family develop its own holy “hidden life.”
Make your home a place of prayer. Your day shouldn’t be dominated by devotions, but you should have some regular, routine family prayers, just as the Holy Family did. They prayed and studied the Scriptures, but still managed to get their work done.
Sure, you and your family are busy. We’re all busy. But if you can find time in your day for a little bit of TV, radio, snacking, or Web surfing, you can make time to pray as a family. There are many ways to do this, and you should seek what works best for your tribe. Begin with something small and manageable, and then give yourselves time to grow into it.
Display an image of the Holy Family. Keep a Nativity set up all year round—on the mantel or a shelf in plain view. Hang a picture or an especially beautiful Christmas card someplace where you will see it daily, or display an image of the Holy Family in your home year-round. Like your framed photos of beloved relatives, it will remind you who you are, where you’ve come from, and the standards you want to live up to.
Mike Aquilina is author or editor of more than thirty books on Catholic history, doctrine, and devotion. He is executive vice-president of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology based in Steubenville, Ohio.