God has given us a portrait of the virtues in the life of the Holy Family. Unlike a static, cracked ancient stone, we find in their hearts a living icon of fidelity in hardship, stemming from complete openness to the grace of God. We can follow them not only in the “school of Nazareth,” as St. Paul VI expressed their daily routine of prayer and work, but, as we approach Christmas, we can join their steps to Bethlehem and Jerusalem, and their unexpected detour to Egypt. We trace these mysteries in the Christmas cycle of the liturgical season and can enter them mystically, making the Holy Family’s journey our own, seeking to imitate their dispositions as Mary and Joseph welcome Jesus into the world and build their lives around him.
Our journey begins in Nazareth. Although tradition places Mary’s childhood in Jerusalem, offered by her elderly parents, Joachim and Anne, for service in the Temple, we find her in the holy house of Nazareth during her betrothal to Joseph. God often leads us in ways we do not expect and Mary, who had vowed chastity to God, found herself betrothed. We can see her own expectation to remain celibate in her question, “How can this be, for I know not man” (Lk 1:34). A betrothed woman would not wonder about a forthcoming pregnancy. Her absolute trust and surrender to God’s will enables the unthinkable to happen: continence becomes fruitful out of Mary’s complete gift of herself to God, in a way surpassing marital relations. Joseph, known as her “most chaste spouse,” likewise was called to complete trust and surrender. We find him in the Gospel unable to comprehend the unfolding of God’s plan, while expressing complete obedience to the words of the angel, spoken to him through a dream. Joseph does not speak any words in the Gospel, although he models an immediate and unquestioning readiness to obey God’s plan.
God’s providence drew the Holy Family to David’s city, Bethlehem, the home of Joseph’s ancestors, destined to be the place of birth of the Messiah. The cave-stable of Jesus’s birth teaches us about God’s priorities. He comes not to overwhelm us with his power; rather, he invites and draws us to himself through humility. Although we ought to serve him, he comes to serve us, even giving himself as food, lying in the manger. The poverty of the Holy Family points us to the need for greater temperance, moderating our desires and putting spiritual goods before material ones. How can we live in luxury, when God himself was born into poverty for us? Wrapped in swaddling clothes, he invites us to imitate his simplicity.
Forty days after Jesus’s birth, we see the Holy Family making a pilgrimage to nearby Jerusalem in order to offer Jesus in the Temple. This ritual of the Mosaic Law entailed redeeming the firstborn son through a sacrificial offering, recognizing how the firstborn of the Israelites were spared during the Passover in Egypt. This presentation indicated the complete gift of his life to the Father, foreshadowing his mission of making his life itself an offering for sinners. Likewise, the Holy Family was marked by an unbounded charity, which enabled them to live for God above all else. The ritual also marked Mary’s purification after birth. We see in this time in Jerusalem the Holy Family’s faithfulness in observing the Mosaic Law. They model the centrality of prayer and worship we need to order our lives to God, expressed by the virtue of religion, which makes our entire lives into an offering for God’s glory.
Returning to Bethlehem, the Holy Family received the homage of wisemen from the East, who with great diligence sought the baby Jesus, only to flee to Egypt under threat of Herod, who refused the true kingship of the young Messiah. Joseph demonstrates great patience as guardian of his family, embracing exile in a foreign land. Like the Joseph of old, he provides for his family in time of trial. He embodies courage in facing these threats and leaves everything suddenly to flee to an unknown place to subsist there indefinitely. We see Joseph living out what Mary would later say at Cana, “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2:5), the most fundamental disposition for the virtuous life.
Joseph awakes in the night one final time at the command of an angel. Finally, he can return home to Nazareth, where Jesus will grow in wisdom and strength (Lk 2:40), praying and working with his parents. Here the “school of Nazareth” unfolds, showing the home to be the culmination of the family’s journey, the place where human virtues blossom in the deepest love and devotion. Their home became a place of daily faithfulness and kindness, with prudence shaping all the decisions of the day, great and small, and justice guiding interactions with others. By continuing to live in poverty, the Holy Family points to the purpose of work and family life: to care for others and to honor God.
The Holy Family continued to journey, making three annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the great feasts. One last time, Jesus traveled to the holy city for the great Passover that we continue to celebrate at every Mass. His mother travels with him faithfully, experiencing her true labor pains at the foot of the Cross, as a sword of sorrow pierces her heart, fulfilling Simeon’s prophecy at the Presentation (Lk 2:35). The Holy Family’s great pilgrimage has now reached its fulfillment: the crib to the Cross. As Christ is born anew in our hearts this Christmas, he opens our own path from the school of the virtues in Nazareth on toward Jerusalem: to give our lives completely to God with, in and through him.