Whenever we picture the Virgin Mary in the Christmas season, we also typically picture Jesus as an infant, sometimes wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, or sitting on his mother’s lap absorbed in admiration of her face the way babies sometimes do, or carefully balanced in the crook of her arm with his hands outstretched like someone else should be taking their turn carrying him for a bit, or with one hand gesturing toward us and the other giving a peace sign that only Jesus ever gives. Sometimes Jesus’ grandmother Ann is sitting with them, or with an adult John the apostle who was chronologically younger than Jesus, or with his cousin John, who would later be known as the Baptizer, himself an infant born just six months earlier but surprisingly already dressed in camel skin. And where was Joseph in all this? Why is he noticeably missing from the vast majority of these artistic representations?
It’s clearly the absence of actual photographic evidence or eyewitnesses of the Holy Family of Nazareth that has given artists through the years unfettered license to depict them in these iconic poses. But they’re not fooling us. The unvarnished truth is only rarely a fit subject matter for the great masters. Who wants to see the baby Jesus suffering from infant jaundice or diaper rash? Or his mother Mary ragged and irritable from lack of sleep? Or Joseph assembling that crib, which he should have no problem doing, since he was a carpenter by trade?
When the glorious Son of the eternal Father embraced our flawed human nature, he didn’t exempt himself from the messiness and indignities that naturally accompany our experience of infancy and childhood. Most of us don’t remember the gory details, but our parents do. And they will remind us that none of it would have been fit subject matter for the great masters either.
So this past weekend on the Feast of the Holy Family, we saw how their home life was surely not without conflict and challenge. Despite being the Holy Family, they still had to work at keeping communication lines open, expressing appreciation for each other, extending the normal courtesies having to live in such close proximity, willingly and joyfully embracing their roles in family life, learning to trust each other, making room for each other’s limitations, and not allowing misunderstandings and unmet expectations to fester. From experience we know how family life has its share of conflict and challenge. And if the Holy Family of Nazareth would inspire us and give us hope, they would not be exempt from the realities we know so well.
Although the motherhood of the Virgin Mary is unique among all mothers in that she alone can call the Son of God her own Son, she shares with all mothers and fathers her role as primary nurturer, teacher, guide, motivator, and disciplinarian. I am sure there are many other responsibilities attached to parenthood. Some of it comes instinctively. Some of it will need to be learned. The example of our own parents before us will guide us, whether we imitate their successes or we avoid their mistakes. And just like with anything worth our while, the end product will always be beyond the horizon, when our children grow up to be independent, productive, morally ethical, and compassionate citizens of the earthly city and citizens of the heavenly kingdom.
There were a lot of things Mary could never have known going into her experience of motherhood. And despite her belonging to a tight-knit culture where the wisdom and experience that accompanies child rearing and home life are generally shared between mother and daughter, between father and son, there was still so much that would only be known firsthand. If Mary had younger siblings or cousins, or if she helped out with her neighbors’ children, she might have gotten a head start. Still she would have to face motherhood with great courage, patience, determination, and faith in God. It would not prevent heartache or disappointment, as when the 12-year old Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem without his parents’ knowledge, or when as an adult his family feared that stress was getting to him so they thought to take care of him at home, or when he was arrested, tried, flogged, and crucified out of envy by the religious leaders. Mothers and fathers today and through the ages have endured much heartache and disappointment for the things their children have done and the things others have done to them. Nothing will ever adequately prepare any parent for that.
So we look to Mary and Joseph of Nazareth, shining examples of parenthood, and call on them to assist us with our children. Christian tradition tells us Joseph died sometime before Jesus began his public ministry. He provided for Mary and Jesus with the work of his hands. We imagine he faced the challenges of home life with Mary as Jesus grew into young adulthood. Joseph may have been spared the grief of seeing Jesus face his passion and death. But we honor him as Patron of the Universal Church. So Joseph the carpenter still plays a role in the life of God’s people.
When Joseph entered his eternal reward, Mary lost her partner in her great adventure, became a widow, and a single parent. She was to Jesus both mother and father through the years leading up to and through his public ministry as he taught, healed, and embraced his cross.
Mary’s motherhood we celebrate this day is not just about choirs of angels belting out “Glory to God in the highest,” and shepherds coming in search of a child who would be king, and wise men from far-away lands bearing exotic and precious gifts. It is about all the other days after Christmas, when nothing exciting or miraculous happened, and when she had to tend a sick child or an exhausted husband, and probably take care of her own aging parents.
It is about all the other days after Christmas, when she rose early each morning to prepare her family and send them out to meet the new day’s challenges, and when she welcomed them home at day’s end to rest and rejuvenate.
It is about all the other days after Christmas, when she had to ignore her own aches and pains, and patiently and cheerfully assist extended family members and neighbors with their own duties and challenges, when she had to set aside her own concerns because others around her sought her help with their pressing concerns.
It is all about all the other days after Christmas, like today and every day of this new year, when she protects us her children, inspires us, and advocates for us before God’s throne as our mother.
So we seek her intercession. Mary, mother of Jesus and our mother, pray for us.
Rolo B Castillo © 2019