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Feast of the Holy Family

An Unknown Household

Nothing beautiful is visible,

said St Ignatius of Antioch in his Letter to the Romans, written around AD 100.

He might well have had in mind the Holy Family of Nazareth, whose feast we keep today. Who was it who lived in that little house in Galilee, in a village which even other Galileans made fun of?

Can anything good come out of Nazareth?

asked Nathanael spontaneously.

Who lived there? A young man who was the very Word made flesh, full of grace and truth; an older woman who was his mother and who had lived all her days without any sinful thought ever entering her heart; and the head of the household, who was of the royal blood of David, but who earned his bread by the sweat of his brow. These were the three who lived in that simple house in Nazareth.

But all the while, in the world outside, what was going on? Many and great things, no doubt.

Had not the whole world just been united under Caesar Augustus? No one had ever seen so powerful an emperor, or so pacific an empire. And yet it was still expanding -- a large and rainy island opposite Gaul would soon enjoy the pax Romana.

But on the other hand Rome seemed now to have assimilated all that was best in the cultures she had met. Roman culture had come of age; Virgil was lately dead, Ovid still living; some people still remembered Cicero. People asked each other what heights remained to be scaled. Perhaps it was the end of history.

Closer to home, in Judea, there was plenty to occupy people's attention. There was the vexed question of co-operation with Rome -- would the Pharisees get the upper hand, or the Sadducees? There was the impressive building-work which the usurper Herod was having done on the Temple.

Occasionally a piece of news broke about some poor band of fanatics who had defied imperial authority and been cut to pieces in the desert. That would keep people talking for a few months.

For the scholarly-minded, there was the fascinating question of whether the divine scriptures might be reconciled with Greek philosophy. There was no shortage of subjects for discussion, even without the perennial themes of birth, sickness, death and marriage.

And all the while, amid this ocean of news and talk, unknown to the great men who ruled the world, and unknown to the lesser men who talked about the great, the Holy Family lived in a peace which the world cannot give.

Not that they refused the society of their neighbours. Ordinary life put them among people of all kinds -- casual sinners, the devout, the ambitious, the sad. They took part in the great events of Nazareth, the funerals and the weddings, rejoicing with those who rejoiced, grieving with those who grieved.

Perhaps, like Job, they sometimes gave lodging to poor wayfarers. They showed charity to whomever they met.

But their thoughts were not on things of earth. Their house was like a piece of Heaven, brought down among the hills of Nazareth.

And when they came together at the end of the day, then I do not think there was much talk. Instead there was peace, and a silence more eloquent than any words; and there was adoration, as the Father was worshipped in spirit and in truth, and Joseph and Mary learned to contemplate him in the face of his beloved Son.

There has only been one Holy Family upon earth, and it is now re-united in heaven. But scattered all over the earth there are no doubt many people and many families who try in their own way to reproduce the life of Nazareth by putting God first in everything and doing his holy will, whatever happens.

They will never make much noise in the world, nor take up much space in our newspapers. But they are, so to speak, 'the pillars of the earth'; and when everything is made known then we shall surely be amazed to discover them, just as the inhabitants of the world would have been amazed to discover who it was that was living in that little house in Galilee.

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