by Aaron Alford
Recently I heard a message that made me think of something I’ve always taken for granted. Christians accept that Jesus, as the Son of God, was incarnate of the flesh and born of Mary as a human being. But how much thought have we given to the life he chose to lead after his birth and before his public ministry?
As we look through the Old Testament, we see many prefigurements and foreshadows of the miraculous birth of Christ. In the book of Judges, an angel appears to a barren woman and proclaims to her, “Though you are barren and have had no children, yet you will conceive and bear a son.” Her child, Samson, is dedicated to God even before his birth, and is raised according to the vows of a Nazarite.
Hannah was also thought to be barren when she prayed for the gift of a son. God heard her prayer, and she gave birth to Samuel. In gratitude for such a miraculous birth, Hannah gave her child to the Lord’s service, and Samuel, who would become one of Israel’s greatest prophets, grew up in the Temple.
In the New Testament we see John the Baptist, another child of remarkable beginnings, whose mother Elizabeth was well past the age of conceiving. He too is dedicated to God, and lives a life quite apart from the world. Most scholars agree that he would have been part of the desert monastic community of the Essenes.
Yet Christ himself, the most miraculous of all miraculous births, dedicated to God though he was, did not grow up in the Temple, nor did he take the vows of a Nazarite or live a life of monastic asceticism. As far as we know he did not spend any significant time as part of a community such as the Essenes. It certainly would have been a valid choice for him to be set apart in such a way, and perhaps would even have been an asset to the ministry he would begin later in life.
But this was not the path he chose for himself. Instead he lived most of his life in complete averageness in the unremarkable town of Nazareth. For thirty years (give or take), he lived a quiet life among family and friends who knew him simply as Jesus, son of Joseph the carpenter.
Of course we cannot know every reason, but I believe one reason is that he came to show us just how holy and beautiful a thing a family is. Christ was not made holy by being separated from a family, but instead made the family itself holy by becoming part of it.
Not only did he become part of a family, but in his infinite humility he subjected himself to all that being a son entails. He learned to walk by holding Joseph’s pinky finger and wobbling toward his mother. He learned to talk from staring into his mother’s eyes and listening to the strange sounds coming out of her smiling mouth. Perhaps he learned patience by watching his father at work, carefully crafting his wooden creations, smoothing out each line and correcting each corner. Perhaps he learned grace by watching his mother bring a warm meal to the family down the street who had fallen on difficult times. Joseph was not a priest, and Mary was not a prophetess, but Jesus’s first earthly experience of love came in the embrace of Joseph and Mary. Perhaps he learned to love, just as he learned to walk and talk, by watching the way Joseph and Mary gave of themselves to one another.
“He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart. And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man.” -Luke 2:51,52
In the life he chose to live, in his obedience to his earthly parents, Jesus assures us of the sacred calling that being a mother, a father, and even a child is. Mary too, in pondering “all these things in her heart” points to the high calling of parenthood.
There are many exceptional people and Christian saints who overcame less-than-perfect and even horrible childhood and family situations to become great examples of love and faith, but there are many more who were able to become exactly who God intended them to be because of the families in which God placed them. It’s in a family where we learn virtues such as sound morals and Christian doctrine, and perhaps these are some of the first things that come to mind when we think about what we want to teach our children. The most important thing, however, the first and best among anything else a child can learn, is love, for love is the source of all that is holy. Not only must we teach children honour and courage, but we also have to live out grace and humility before their watching eyes. When Joseph fell short and asked his wife’s forgiveness for an unkind word, little Jesus was watching. It is in seeing this day-to-day vocation to love —the calling of every family— that children remember the delectable scent of holiness. They will remember it just as warmly as your home made cookies, and they will want to live in it. That kind of love can make a saint out of anyone. So what saint may you be raising?
As a parent, you have been given the highest and holiest of callings: to teach another human being to love. Don’t be intimidated, and don’t back down from the task. God himself has assured us not only of the sacredness of the vocation, but his faithfulness to meet us there. He will give you the grace to live it, if you have the humility to accept it. No family is perfect, but love can make any family a Holy Family.