The Holy Family: More Than What You Think!

640px-john_everett_millais_-_christ_in_the_house_of_his_parents_2860the_carpenter27s_shop2729_-_google_art_projectThis picture, Christ in the House of His Parents (1849-50) by Sir John Everett Millais (1829-1896), was highly criticized in its day because the “proper” British cultural commentators, including Charles Dickens, found it too “ordinary,” “messy,” and “ugly.” Myself, I think it’s charming. Perhaps profound, even.

We are all familiar with pictures of the Holy Family. Some are pious holy cards, some are sentimental, and some are just cute or silly.

And they are all wrong!

When we think of the Holy Family, we think of Jesus, Mary and Joseph – alone, by themselves, kind of in isolation.

Growing up as an only child without siblings, I’m familiar with the image. While I had a lot of close friends and school pals, the bottom line close family relationship was never more than mom and dad and me. Later on, especially as a young priest, I was vicariously part of larger families, and came to know and appreciate the both the positive and the negative values of large extended family relationships.

Sometimes I thought that the Holy Family – Jesus, Mary and Joseph only – was a lot like what I grew up in. Well, it wasn’t. In the Jewish communities of the ancient near east, there was no such thing as a small family. There was no such thing as privacy either.

The household would hustle and bustle with extended family members – grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews, would likely live under the same roof or next door in a house sharing a wall and perhaps a kitchen. The poor did not have the luxury of space.

Both of my parents, from German immigrant families, grew up in households more like this. In their then-small town of Aberdeen, South Dakota, their extended families were living either in one large house or in houses in the same neighborhood, with near constant back-and-forth interaction among them.

Don’t forget the enigmatic brothers and sisters of Jesus mentioned in the Gospels. Some, especially in our Western European tradition, have explained them away as cousins. The much older Eastern (Catholic and Orthodox) traditions maintain that it was far more likely they were Joseph’s children by a previous marriage – death in childbirth was tragically common in past ages. Joseph wasn’t necessarily “old” by our standards, just a widower, perhaps in his late 20s or early 30s, with young children needing a mom.

In certain segments of Jewish society at that time (Essenes in particular), it was sometimes a practice that a young woman would make a vow of virginity as a sign of her dedication to God. But she would need a “protector.” A young unmarried woman could not make it on her own. A devout widower might offer to safeguard her pledge to God in marriage in exchange for her commitment to mother his children.

This also helps us understand the depth of Joseph’s dilemma when Mary turned up pregnant. On the face of things, it would appear that she was unfaithful not only to him, but more disappointingly to God by violating her solemn vow. Mary’s intention and Joseph’s commitment could very well have been a private matter, and so the circumstances of Jesus conception need not have been public knowledge nor a cause of scandal or gossip. This squares with the account of Joseph as a “just man” (Matthew 1:19).

Joseph was a carpenter, but the word we understand as carpenter – tekton – actually meant a construction worker. During Jesus’ youth, Herod Antipas, the son of the brutal Herod the Great, was building a splendid imperial city – Sepphoris – less than an hour’s walk from Nazareth. It’s likely Joseph was a minimum-wage construction worker, helping to build palaces and monuments for the emperor. Jesus probably did this too. He not only became a skilled craftsman as would be needed to survive in the construction trade, but he also knew firsthand the injustices wreaked upon the poor working class by the wealthy and powerful.

Jesus grew up, not in a calm and peaceful woodworking shop in a small village, as we usually picture him. He grew up in a large and dynamic family, struggling to eke out a living in a hostile world, with all the bickering and loving, all the petty selfishness and extraordinary generosity that we find in large families.

The important point is that Jesus came from a family not that much different from most of ours. We can relate to him and he to us. He knows what our life is like.

Isn’t that wonderful?

P.S. Art is never limited to a literal representation of a person, scene, or event. The purpose of art is to draw the viewer into a deeper world of meaning through symbolic communication. Millais’ painting is not and could not be a “realistic” depiction any more than Salvador Dali’s surrealism could be of real-life events. Just look at strangeness of those sheep crowded just outside the doorway! Wikipedia does a good job describing the symbolism:

The painting depicts the young Jesus assisting Joseph in his workshop. Joseph is making a door, which is laid on his carpentry work-table. Jesus has cut his hand on an exposed nail, leading to a sign of the stigmata, prefiguring the crucifixion. As Saint Anne removes the nail with a pair of pincers, his concerned mother Mary offers her cheek for a kiss while Joseph examines his wounded hand. The young John the Baptist brings in water to wash the wound, prefiguring his later baptism of Christ. An assistant of Joseph’s [TW: more likely one of Joseph’s older sons], representing potential future Apostles, watches these events. In the background various objects are used to further point up the theological significance of the subject. A ladder, referring to Jacob’s Ladder, is visible leaning against the back wall; a dove standing for the Holy Spirit rests on it. Other carpentry implements refer to the Holy Trinity. The sheep in the fold in the background represent the future Christian flock.

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Author: tomwelbers

I have been a Catholic priest for nearly fifty years, most of that time serving in parish and college campus ministry. I also have professional degrees in theology and liturgy, as well as institutional management, and continue avidly to explore pastoral theology, Scripture, liturgy, ecumenical and interfaith relations, and spiritual direction. I have a passion for sharing insight into our Christian heritage through teaching, writing, and leading pilgrimages, especially to Early Christian World sites in Turkey. Now actively retired from parish ministry, I live at Nazareth House in Los Angeles.

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