By: James Martin
JESUS, MARY AND JOSEPH! Who could be more familiar to us? Yet there is actually little that we know of the activities of the Holy Family in the years before Jesus’ public ministry. The stories of this famous family, though, appear in the Bible for a reason. So what can the distinctive lives, experiences and spiritualities of the members of the Holy Family teach us?
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In this Catholic Update we’ll explore how the Jesus, Mary and Joseph we find in the Gospels can help us find our path in life today. We’ll do that by placing ourselves imaginatively in Scripture. In this way, perhaps we’ll find some resonances, intersections and parallels in our own lives.
Jesus, the starting point
Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, is the Son of God. But often we think only of his divine life and his wondrous miracles. Some of us, maybe most of us, see him as fully divine but not really fully human (which, of course, is a heresy).
For the moment, let’s focus on how the human Jesus might have come to understand what he was meant to do (inherit the throne of King David) and who he was meant to be (the Messiah—see Lk 1:33). His understanding of vocation can help our understanding of our own vocation.
Unfortunately, the Gospel writers say nothing about the life of Jesus between the time he is discovered teaching in the Temple at age 12 and the beginning of his public ministry around age 30. This 18-year period was undoubtedly crucial in the growing self-awareness and maturation of Jesus.
But we can imagine this: Over the years, Mary and Joseph most likely came to understand that their son was destined for a unique vocation. At the same time, Jesus probably spent much time preparing for what he may have thought would be his lifelong occupation: that of a carpenter, or what we might also call a craftsman or construction worker.
Those same virtues that Jesus acquired as a real-life carpenter (patience, persistence, hard work, honesty and so on) would serve him well in his later ministry. As Jesus matured, God the Father may have been preparing him for his eventual work, much as God can use our own backgrounds and talents for the good. God, in each of our lives, can prepare us for things we might never have predicted!
Jesus’ young adulthood may have been the period when he first began to wonder if he was meant for some special purpose. Perhaps this came from his own prayer or from the way he felt when he read certain Scripture passages. Perhaps, when he saw people in Nazareth who were sick, his heart was moved with pity. Perhaps, when he saw some religious leaders laying heavy burdens on the people, he sensed how far this was from what God wanted.
Perhaps Jesus started to believe that his life should be about alleviating suffering and injustice. Perhaps he felt within him a deep desire to preach the word of God. Perhaps he wondered if he might have some great part to play in the liberation of his people.
Even at the beginning of his public ministry at 30, Jesus seems a bit unsure about what he’s supposed to do. You could make a case that when Jesus goes to the Jordan River to be baptized, he also goes to hear the message of John the Baptist and discover whether it can help him understand what he is meant to do.
Whatever the reasons that draw Jesus to the banks of the Jordan, something happens at his baptism that is so astounding it convinces Jesus that he has a unique mission, to be the Messiah. All of his desires and wonderings in his earlier life seemed to have moved Jesus toward his full vocation. So, too, with each of us.
A life of mission
Even after his stay in the desert, Jesus embraces his mission slowly. We see this at the wedding feast at Cana (Jn 2:1-11) when the wine runs out and his mother urges him to come to the rescue of the hosts. He replies—in so many words—“What does this have to do with me? I’m not the person you want!”
In response, his mother says to the hosts: “Do whatever he tells you.” For all we know, Mary may have understood his mission earlier than Jesus did (see Lk 1:31-33). In many ways, we share his experience in the “Marys” in our own lives—those who, perhaps better than we ourselves, see where God is calling us.
Somehow, Jesus understands what is required of him. Confidently, he tells the steward to fill large earthen jars with water and serve the guests. But it is not water that comes out of the jars; it is wine.
It’s possible that Jesus himself was surprised by his first miracle! At the very least, Cana seems to have strengthened Jesus’ understanding of his mission and emboldened him to trust even more in God, to trust even more in his own judgment and discernment, and to trust in his ability to do miraculous things in the name of God.
This is also the case in our own lives. The more we live out of our true selves, the more we become the person that God intended and see the spectacular effects of a well-lived vocation.
As the Gospel stories continue, it is easy to see Jesus growing in confidence in his mission and in his identity. But there is one last test: his time in the Garden of Gethsemane immediately before the Passion. Near the end of his life, he struggles with a complete embrace of his mission. “If this cup may pass me by,” he says, hoping that perhaps this suffering is not what God intends.
But he comes to realize, through prayer and reflection, that his impending suffering is what God is asking of him at this point. It is here, it seems to me, that in accepting the cup of suffering (see Is 53), Jesus fully accepts his identity. Part of his life and vocation includes suffering, as do all of our lives and vocations.
He is completely free. As he moves towards death, carrying his cross, he is firm in his acceptance of his true self, a vocation that includes suffering and death. Each of us, in however God is speaking to us, is called to do the same: Listen, and surrender to the future that God has in store for us.
But we’re not yet at the end of the story: There is Easter!
While Jesus lived his life in perfect faith and trusted that something wonderful would come from his acceptance of his mission and his obedience to his Father, he may not have known precisely that this would lead to his resurrection.
Even while he hung on the cross, though freely giving himself to his mission, he cried out in pain and confusion. For me, this possible ignorance of his own future makes his acceptance of his humanity more meaningful. He trusted God so completely that he knew that by following his vocation he would bring new life to others.
The life of Jesus Christ is the central image for the Christian life. The way that Jesus came to understand who he was, what he was meant to do and how he was meant to do it can help all of us on our journeys. All of us are called to meditate deeply on our own true selves, to embrace the reality of our vocations and to let God transform our true selves into sources of new life for others. It’s a long route, a lifetime journey, but we are not alone. We can look to the humanity of Jesus for a road map to this journey.
Mary of Nazareth
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Let’s now turn to Jesus’ mother, Mary, a woman who was conceived without sin but was also a human being with normal worries, doubts and struggles.
The story of the Annunciation in the Gospel of Luke (Lk 1:26-38), the tale of the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary, is among the most popular of Bible stories for many believers, myself included. In this familiar passage, Mary exemplifies the role of the believer in Jesus, the long-awaited Messiah (see Lk 1:32).
In effect, the Annunciation offers us a microcosm of the spiritual life.
To begin with, the initiative lies entirely with God. It is God who speaks to Mary, and to us, in often unexpected ways. Does that sound familiar? The question for Christians is, Where is God starting a conversation with you?
When Mary first experiences the presence of God, she is fearful. How often this happens to us! When we begin to wonder if God might be communicating with us—through our emotions, experiences, relationships, desires, prayer—we are often confused, overwhelmed, even fearful. This very human experience is common in the spiritual life. But God understands. “Fear not,” says the angel Gabriel to Mary.
Then the angel explains to Mary what God is asking of her. Again, how similar to our lives! After the initial encounter, after we confront our fear of God and have the chance to reflect on our experience with God, it becomes clearer what God is asking us to do.
But Mary questions. How wonderful! A young, probably illiterate woman from a backwater town presses the angel of the Lord for an explanation. “How can this be?” asks a practical Mary to God’s messenger, “since I am a virgin?”
Gabriel responds in the same way God often responds to us. The angel reminds Mary to look around her, to look at what God can do—and has done. “And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God” (Lk 1:36-37).
More often than not, God is found by looking back over your life, or your week, or your day, and saying, “Yes, there was God.” Gabriel, in essence, says the same to Mary.
God invites us to join him, to follow his will, to create with him. But the decision is always up to us.
Then Mary says, “May it be done to me according to your word” (v. 38). But she could have said no. With her “yes,” Mary partners herself with the Almighty and is empowered to bring Christ into the world as the one to fulfill the messianic promise. With our own “yes” to God’s voice in our lives we are also asked to nurture the word of God within us and bring Christ into the world. God asks each of us to say, “yes.” Sometimes, if we look back on the nos of our lives, we can appreciate the yeses all the more.
Then, after Mary said yes, the angel left. And isn’t that the way it often works? After these encounters with God we are left alone to carry out what we are asked to do. Frequently it seems very lonely. Who knows if Mary ever encountered God as deeply as she did at the Annunciation, before Jesus’ birth?
That’s the part of trusting that God has told us is to be trusted—the part of faith.
Finally, let’s focus on Mary’s husband, Joseph. Poor Joseph! On many Christmas cards these days you’ll notice that he is usually stuck in the back—old, balding, sometimes even entirely absent from the scene. Not only did he help raise the Son of God, but his story has a lot to teach us.
Sadly, little is known about St. Joseph. He was of the line of King David and was to be engaged to a young woman from Nazareth. Mary was found, quite unexpectedly, to be pregnant. But Joseph, “since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame,” as the Gospel of Matthew (1:19) says, planned to dissolve his betrothal quietly.
Even before Jesus is born, Joseph’s tender compassion and forgiving heart were on full display. His actions must have earned him the contempt of many in Nazareth, just as the work of compassion and justice is often rejected today.
Then God uses a dream to reveal his saving plans for the carpenter from Nazareth. In the dream, an angel lets Joseph in on Mary’s secret (see Mt 1:20-25). That same angel, after the birth of Mary’s son, advises Joseph to take the child and his mother to Egypt, to flee the murderous Herod. Joseph listens (Mt 2:13-15). Dreams, to this day, can still bring forth God’s word into our lives. Some of us, it seems, need to be asleep before we can shut out the world’s noise enough to listen!
There are only a few more stories about the boy Jesus—he is lost on a journey and found teaching in the Temple. So most of Jesus’ first decades are his “hidden life.” This is Joseph’s time. He spends it caring for his foster son—and teaching him the trade of carpentry or woodworking. In Joseph’s workshop in Nazareth, Jesus would have learned about the raw materials for his craft as well as the values required to become a good carpenter.
Alongside his teacher, a young Jesus labored and built, contributing all the while to the common good of Nazareth and the surrounding towns. As I mentioned, it’s not hard to imagine that the skills Jesus learned from his teacher would serve him well in his later ministry.
The things that seem so insignificant, so hidden, so small—teaching an adolescent about carpentry—turn out to be quite important, indeed, like much of what we do.
As a father, Joseph would as well have been one of his son’s primary teachers in his religious faith. It is probable that Joseph was the first one Jesus went to with his questions. So Jesus’ understanding of God the Father, his heavenly Father, may have been shaped not only by Joseph’s own life, but also by Joseph’s answers to his questions. Joseph’s faith was one of the foundations of Jesus’ faith.
But as soon as Jesus starts his ministry, Joseph disappears, at least in the Gospel narratives. What happened to the guardian of Jesus? Tradition holds that by the time Jesus began his preaching, Joseph had already died.
How Jesus and Mary must have wished Joseph could have seen and heard about his son’s work among the people of Israel! How they must have wished for the counsel of their father and husband during Jesus’ public ministry! How Mary must have longed for Joseph’s shoulder to support her during the Crucifixion!
Joseph is not mentioned beyond those few early passages in Scripture. Appearing only briefly in the Gospels, given no words to speak at all, Joseph leads a life of quiet service to God, a life that remains almost totally unknown to us. His was, necessarily, a life of humility. Today many Christians lead lives of hidden charity—a kind deed here, a few hours of service there. All of these quiet acts mark the Christian lifestyle. Even if no one else sees those deeds, God does.
Public or hidden, the earthly lives of Jesus, Mary and Joseph may sometimes seem far removed from our own today. But if we look at them carefully, we can see how their individual lives offer an invitation to grow in our own humanity and holiness. It’s in our hands to accept this invitation, to listen for God’s call and to faithfully respond.
James Martin is a Jesuit priest, culture editor of America and author of the best-selling books My Life with the Saints and Becoming Who You Are.
NEXT: Day-by-Day Through Lent (by Alice Camille)