The Holy Family, just a threesome? NOT!

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

And they are all wrong!

When we think of the Holy Family, we think of Jesus, Mary and Joseph – in a kind of quiet, contemplative isolation.

Growing up as an only child, without siblings and very few nearby relatives, I’m familiar with the image. While I had a lot of close friends and school pals, the bottom line family relationship was never more than mom and dad and me. Nobody else was part of our immediate family. No one else lived in the house with us. Later on, especially as a young priest, I was vicariously part of larger families, and came to know and appreciate both the benefits and the burdens 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 communal kitchen and garden. Maybe some chickens and other small animals. Then as now, the poor did not have the luxury of space.

Don’t forget the enigmatic brothers and sisters of Jesus mentioned in the Gospels (Mark 3:31-32; 6:3; Matthew 13:55-56). Some have explained them away as cousins. I think it’s far more likely they were Joseph’s children by a previous marriage – death in childbirth was tragically common in past ages. Second marriages primarily to provide a mother for the widower’s children were not exceptional. 

If this was the case, Mary would have made a marriage commitment to be (step)mother to Joseph’s children (four brothers and two sisters of Jesus are named in the Gospels) and he would likely still have been a fairly young widower, with the responsibility of raising a sizeable brood in need of a mother’s role in their upbringing. Joseph’s role in the marriage would have been both to protect Mary’s virginity and provide Jewish legal paternity for Jesus as a descendant of King David. Jesus would have also have been raised as the youngest child in the family, with at least four “brothers” and two “sisters.”

Yes, it would have taken an extraordinary act of love upon the part of both Joseph and Mary to refrain from sex in this intensely sacred relationship as the Church has firmly believed since the earliest days.

Joseph was a carpenter, but the Greek word we understand as carpenter – tekton – actually meant a construction worker. During Jesus’ youth, the Romans were building a splendid imperial city – Sepphoris – just 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. As such, they worked and were paid day-to-day, and had no job security nor protection from the frequent accidents and abuse that they suffered as disposable low-level workers. Jesus 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, with all the bickering and loving, all the petty selfishness and extraordinary generosity and complex personality interactions that we find in large families.

The important point is that Jesus came from a family not that much different from most of ours, facing the same challenges and loving support as most of us in our day-to-day struggles and joys. We can relate to him and he to us. He knows what our life is like.

Isn’t that wonderful?

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