The Holy Family: Jesus (1/2)

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?

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.

Source: The Holy Family (James Martin)


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