Lessons from the Holy Family

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

Without a doubt the centerpiece of the Christmas Season is the Holy Family – Jesus, Mary and Joseph huddled together in the Bethlehem stable – always a beautiful and comforting scene for us. Is it any wonder that year after year we pause before the familiar manger displayed in our homes, churches – and sometimes public places – to gaze upon the Holy Family, say a little prayer and embrace a welcome moment of peace.

If you look at the Nativity scene closely, however, and really think about it, you find much more than just an idyllic Christmas card. From the Holy Family there are powerful lessons to be learned.

The first is a clear affirmation of human dignity. Despite our failures, shortcoming and sins – or actually because of them – God found it necessary to have His only-begotten Son become one of us, to share our human journey in every way, short of sin itself. God wanted to lift us up to Himself. Thus our prayer, “may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled Himself to share in our humanity.” The Child of Bethlehem is an unmistakable reminder that each human life is a precious gift of God, always to be treasured and respected.

The second lesson is that the human family – mother, father and child – is an essential part of God’s plan for mankind. Pope Benedict reminds us of this truth in his Message for the 2008 World Day of Peace: “The natural family, as an intimate communion of life and live, based on marriage between a man and a woman constitutes the primary place of ‘humanization’ for the person and society, and a cradle of life and love. The family is therefore rightly defined as the first natural society, a divine institution.”

In these days when the building blocks of marriage and family are being buffeted by the fierce winds of radical change and social experimentation, the Holy Family calls us to renew our commitment to these divinely established communities.

Next, the Holy Family reminds us that family life isn’t always perfect and peaceful, that there will always be challenges and problems. Think of the problems the Holy Family encountered: Mary and Joseph had to leave their home at a very inconvenient time and travel to Bethlehem in difficult and dangerous circumstances; there was no room for them at the Inn and Jesus had to be born into the meanest of conditions; family and friends did not understand or support their impulsive decisions; and civil authorities, jealous of their son, wanted to destroy Him, forcing them to flee to a distant land (as illegal immigrants, no doubt) for their safety.

I suspect that your family life isn’t always perfect and peaceful, either. What are the problems you’ve encountered in your life? What are the challenges you’re facing today?

Finally, the Holy Family reminds us that God should always come first in our lives. For Mary and Joseph God was central, even before the Birth of Jesus. Mary and Joseph were raised in devout Jewish families; they had an ongoing relationship with the Lord. Thus they were predisposed to hear God’s voice and respond to His will, even though it meant great sacrifice for them. There lives were informed by faith.

As you gaze upon the Holy Family, take an inventory of your faith. Is your life informed and directed by faith? Does God play a leading role in your life everyday or just during times of crisis? Are you willing to do what God asks of you? Does your faith influence your thoughts, words, deeds and decisions? Is your faith evident to others?

The ultimate lesson of Christmas, then, is this: to fulfill our destiny as human beings we need God; we simply cannot prosper without Him, try as we might. The late Pope John Paul spoke of the “primacy of grace.” And the great theologian, Karl Rahner described the subtle reality of grace this way:

If we have sometimes forgiven someone quietly, and with no hope of recompense; If in one moment we have been kind to someone without hope of their corresponding; If one day we made an important decision in absolute solitude led only be the innermost dictates of conscience; If we have sacrificed ourselves for someone without expecting them to thank us for it; If we have tried to love God when we were not borne aloft on a wave of enthusiasm; Then we can say we have experienced grace!

Dear friends, as we celebrate this Christmas Season and gaze upon the Holy Family, I pray that you will recognize the goodness of human life and love; that you will treasure your family as a gift of God; that Jesus will be the center of your life; that you will be surprised by many wonderful moments of God’s grace; and that through the intercession of our Blessed Mother Mary and good St. Joseph the Lord Jesus will bless you always. Merry Christmas to you, and a blessed and happy New Year!