In today’s Gospel, we have the only story from the childhood of Jesus. From his birth until his public ministry, for a total of about 30 years, the Gospels only record this one story. We do know that most of these years, Jesus spent in Nazareth with Mary and Joseph. But because we know so little about this time, these years are called the “hidden years” at Nazareth. As Pope Paul VI wrote, there is much that we can learn about family life from this silence.
First of all, we learn from the silence itself. The home life is a private life. It is a place to protect and nourish the children as they grow.
As kids in school and at church, many people would often make comments to my parents about how well behaved me and my brothers were. So much so, that my parents wondered if these adults were really talking about us. They must have my kids confused with some other kids, they would think. And I knew for sure they weren’t talking about my brothers. Like most kids, my brothers could be polite and kind in public, but at home, it was an entirely different story. They could be rude, demanding, selfish, and sometimes just downright mean. And I’m sure my brothers could and would say the same about me. At home I could be rude, demanding, selfish, and mean. But in public it was the exact opposite.
The privacy of the home protected us from our own reputations. And the keeping of this privacy taught us that such unruly behavior was shameful, and not something to be seen in public. And not in the home either, but that was a work in progress. And because of this behavior in the home we also learned the willingness to forgive, on a daily basis sometimes. The love within the family looks beyond these faults; it is always ready to forgive. The privacy of the home combined with discipline, taught me and my brothers how to behave both in public and at home. At home we learned the importance of forgiving.
Secondly, Nazareth teaches us about the dignity of work. We know that Joseph was a carpenter. And by his work he supported the family. The dignity of work comes from the fact that it supports the family life. By working, parents are able to feed, clothe, and shelter their children. And although it’s nice to have jobs we like, and which pay well, these are secondary concerns. The first concern is providing for the family.
An autobiography by Don Snyder entitled, The Cliff Walk, writes about this. The author is a college professor at Colgate who loses his job. And he has to take up painting houses in order to support his family. And here, he discovers the joy of family life. His job is no longer his primary concern. His family becomes the primary concern. The experience of losing his job helps him find his life, a life centered on the people he loves, his family. His life is no longer centered on reputation and work.
These two things which we learn from Nazareth about the silence and privacy of home life, and about the dignity of work, help teach us our third lesson from Nazareth. And it’s this, the love within the family, is a love marked by the Cross of Christ. The love within the family is a sacrificial love. It’s the epitome of love; it’s the giving of oneself to another.
Family love begins its imitation of the Cross of Christ with the pangs of labor. The mother endures the pains of labor so that her child might have life. It continues with the hard works with which father and mother continue to support and raise the child. The many little sacrifices, such as getting up in the middle of the night in order to change a diaper or feed a hungry baby, or to be with a sick child. Then, the sacrifices continue as the parents forego their own activities, so that their children can participate in sports, or scouts or school activities.
And in the course of time, the sacrifices get turned around, as parents’ age, it becomes the children’s turn to sacrifice. As they run errands for parents who can no longer drive or walk. And as they take in parents, who can no longer live by themselves.
Family life is to be a life of love, a love that’s ready to forgive, and a love that’s always willing to sacrifice for another. Christian family life is meant to imitate the Cross of Christ. And for family life to have its fullest meaning, the presence of Christ in the family should be made explicit. The family itself is a kind of church, it’s a community of believers. And as a community of believers they gather together in prayer. Not just in church every Sunday, but also in the home during the week.
Every home should have an area set aside for family prayer. Ours was in the living room around the crucifix hanging above the couch. This is where we learned to pray this is where we prayed the rosary. (This is where I learned to forgive my brother Matt as he breathed all over me when we prayed)
Theologians tell us that we will spend eternity in Heaven with those we are closest to on earth, our family. And the things we need for a good family life, are the same things we need for eternal life. They are silence marked by prayer and forgiveness. And they are work and sacrifice on behalf of the ones we love. My prayer for us today is that we constantly imitate the example of the Holy Family so that after the trials of this world we may share their company forever.
May we be great Saints,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley