In the Office of Readings for today's feast Pope Paul VI suggests that in meditating upon the Holy Family
we learn the method which will permit us to understand who Christ is. Here above all is made clear the importance of taking into account the general picture of his life among us, with its varied background of place, of time, of customs, of language, of religious practices -- in fact, everything Jesus made use of to reveal himself to the world. Here everything is eloquent, everything has meaning.
The feast of the Holy Family, then, is a way of entering into the ordinary, everyday life of Christ incarnate. Everything speaks of how God shows himself to us in the most ordinary, as well as the most extraordinary ways.
Being part of a family meant he lived in a real place and time, had real people as his relations. The myriad activities and rituals which make up family life, including even misunderstandings, patterned the life of Christ too.
Some of these activities and incidents are presented in the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary: the Presentation, the Finding of the child Jesus. Even the Visitation, where the Incarnate Word first comes across Elizabeth and John the Baptist, is a meditation on the extended nature of the Holy Family.
But even apart from these beautiful scenes, we can think of the entirely ordinary events which made up life in the Family at Nazareth. Eating, sleeping, washing, praying, going to the synagogue, going on pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover, rote learning prayers and passages from Scripture. All of these show how deeply God has entered into our life, to share the mundane as well as the dramatic.
One age which understood this well was the Middle Ages. Many works of art, painting, sculpture, illuminations, plays and poems dwell lovingly on the domestic details of the life of the Holy Family. Not in a fantastical sense of miraculous nappies and supernatural rattles, on which a monophysite infant sears tangible proof of his divinity. It is rather, precisely on the ordinary debris of family life that these works concentrate.
One fourteenth-century orphrey from a chasuble shows Jesus learning to walk on a contemporary baby-walker, while Mary and Joseph look on anxiously. Later Jesus is shown collecting wood shavings from off the work-shop floor while Joseph planes and Mary spins.
An illumination of the fourteenth century and a ceiling boss from the Nuremberg Frauenkirche show Jesus on his way to school, one hand in his mother's and the other trailing his writing slate. In some paintings while Mary and the infant Jesus are surrounded by choirs of adoring angels, or the exotic wise men presenting their gifts, the Christ-child is mesmerized by his own toes.
Even in a picture of the glorification of the Virgin by Geertgen tot Sint Jans (1480) there is Jesus replying to the angelic orchestra by tinkling two bells in true childish delight. This tradition of joy in the ordinary, delight in the details of everyday life, is really a devotion to the reality of the Incarnation.
This depiction of the reality of the family of Jesus reaches comic proportions in some of the medieval mystery plays. Like the slightly grumpy old man in the background of many nativity pictures, the Joseph of the plays is depicted as a rather bad tempered but endearing comic figure who believes he has been deceived.
In one play when Mary tells him of the Incarnation he replies,
Say not so woman; for shame, let be!
Ye be with child so wondrous great,
Ye need no more thereof to treat
Against all right.
Forsooth, this child, dame, is not mine,
Alas, that ever with mine eyne,
I should see this sight!
Joseph then warns all old men not to marry younger wives. All is put right, of course, when the angel appears to Joseph. But this ease with, and joy in, the ordinariness of the life of the Holy Family, really shows us the reality of Christ's coming among us.
We might even call this feast the Feast of Holy Familiarity, that familiarity that comes from God having taken our nature to Himself, though without sin. The God who has truly become flesh, and dwelt among us, so we might be raised to join the family of the saints in heaven.