Recognizing the ordinary amid the extraordinary

The juxtaposition of the two solemnities of the Annunciation (though deferred) and the feast of St. Joseph suggests an opportunity to meditate on the Holy Family. We more naturally associate the Holy Family with Christmastime, but these two closely coordinated celebrations focus the lens a little differently, less towards the Nativity itself and more towards the marriage of Mary and Joseph. 

We read in Luke that the angel Gabriel was specifically “sent from God … to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David” (Lk. 1.26-27). It is easy to forget, but St. Joseph is included in the narrative of the Annunciation. The angel, “sent from God,” revealed God’s design not only that His Son be conceived virginally but, equally, that He be conceived in a marriage, in a family—uniquely so, but nevertheless so. Not only Mary but her marriage with Joseph was predestined, from all eternity, to receive, on behalf of all humanity, the miracle of the Incarnation.

In the corresponding story in Matthew, we read “the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit” (Mt. 1.18). It specifically notes that the conception by the Holy Spirit was in Mary who had been already betrothed to Joseph. Mary and Joseph are inseparably introduced in both Gospels. God could have chosen a different way. He could have been a little more respectably dazzling. After all, it was the conception of an eternal Person with all divine power at His disposal! Why not find some famous virgin and rent out the Circus Maximus in Rome and sell tickets to the miraculous virginal conception and, maybe an hour later, the birth of this super-prestigious baby? Gosh, why choose an ordinary marriage of impoverished and dispossessed nobility (the worst kind) where no one could possibly know about it? No razzle-dazzle? How disappointing.

At least, that is the devil’s considered opinion. Could this unbelievably ordinary family have produced the Son of God? The devil tempts Jesus later on to produce some appropriate dazzle: Jump off this building; make these stones bread! That is the devil’s idea of what a respectable Son of God should be.

But, “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given!” to a family of husband and wife—so ordinary, so unremarkable, so pedestrian, and so difficult. Working out the custody of this shared miraculous gift is the sum and substance of Mary and Joseph’s marriage.

Of course, we know that Mary and Joseph were both uniquely prepared to be married to each other in this unique circumstance. Mary is “full of grace.” Origen of Alexandria comments that Mary is troubled because she knows that this designation has never been used before by anyone in Scripture. Its uniqueness is reflected in the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.

But Joseph, too, is given a special qualifier: “Her husband Joseph, being a just man” was unwilling to put his inexplicably pregnant wife to shame. He resolved to “send her away quietly” (Mt. 1.19). It’s only one word, “just,” but it sums up perfection according to the Law and thus as Matthew, who proclaims Jesus as the new Moses, understands it. What is this justice? Matthew reveals it in the first Beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit!” (Mt. 5.3). Jesus fulfills the Law in the perfection of poverty of spirit, in His love. His predestined earthly (though not natural) Dad is pre-configured to this perfection. Matthew shows us what this means. Joseph without hesitation bends to the will of God as soon as he knows it, even though relayed in dreams by an angel. Perhaps he could have insisted at very least on a personal audience. Nevertheless he gives himself to Mary, utterly and without reserve, in marriage, trusting in God’s word. In this, as Bishop Flores of Brownsville has noted, he is foreshadowing the gift of his Son to His Bride, the Church, a marriage consummated by the supreme self-gift of His blood.

God could have chosen any number of ways to house the Incarnate Word. He didn’t need St. Joseph, he didn’t need a family. God is omnipotent. He has a lot of options. But God “emptied Himself” (Phil. 2.7). He reaffirmed the loving commitment to us that Creation was in the first place, humbling Himself, contouring Himself to the dimensions of the creature, to the family He had created, content to be someone’s baby and to utter humiliating (for God, anyway) wailings like any newborn. St. Joseph never tried to dazzle anyone by revealing who this kid was and (like I would) selling tickets for a glimpse. His paternity is a holocaust, a whole burnt offering, without even the ability to give an account to anyone as to his identity. His love, his poverty of spirit, weaves a cloak of invisibility around his family. The devil does not believe in love. It blocks his vision. Looking to be dazzled, he has contempt for St. Joseph and his insufferably dull family. Joseph’s paternity cost him everything. We fathers in the Church can learn from him how to love! Are we looking to dazzle anyone by our illustrious careers? Are we even willing to be as ordinary as becoming a father? Are we invested in the very non-dazzling self-giving love which is the true vocation of husband and father?

Mary, for her part, “full of grace,” did not lead a charmed life. Grace isn’t magic. She may have been tempted to wonder why, apart from the Annunciation itself, God communicated to Joseph all the time. Why were all directions relayed to him? But her largeness of heart, full of grace, does not admit these thoughts. Working out these kinds of things is the stuff of intimacy in a real marriage, as opposed to the air-brushed variety we are inclined to assign Mary and Joseph. Being “full of grace” did not exempt Mary from struggle and growth but actually impelled it.

 On one level, this means growth in her relationship with St. Joseph. At the finding of the boy Jesus in the Temple, Mary explains to her divine Son that he hurt both his parents’ feelings and caused a lot of hassle by staying behind: “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously!” (Lk. 2.49). Neither of them understood their Son’s seemingly uncaring reply, complete with that piercing word, “Father,” pointedly tailored to His Mother’s complaint and intentionally not meaning Joseph. We must imagine a difficult, wholly non-dazzling but very interior marital intimacy as Mary “pondered these things in her heart,” patient with Her Son, and the family heads back to Nazareth where Jesus was “obedient to them” (Lk. 2.3). “Son though He was, He learned obedience” (Heb. 5.8). “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given!”

Joseph disappears from view. His paternity is consummated having brought Jesus up until his “hour” had come. Mary’s hour is yet to come. We find her next in Luke seemingly rebuffed by Jesus: “‘Your mother and your brethren are standing outside, desiring to see you!’ But He said in reply, ‘My mother and my brethren are those who hear the word of God and do it’” (Lk. 8.20). Ouch! “And I thought I was special!” Mary could have thought. And yet—precisely we have seen, in this very Gospel, how, “full of grace,” Mary “heard the word of God” and did it. The crowd is not impressed—just another pushy mother wanting a little of her son’s fame to brush off on her (they thought)—but what should Jesus do? Blow the humility that His Father willed from all eternity? No. She is seemingly as ordinary as any mother in any crowd, anxious and powerless to reach her son. But we know she never left His side. Even on purely Lukan terms, she sticks with the Apostles after the death of Jesus, which would seem to have dashed all her hopes.

We see her at the foot of the Cross in the Fourth Gospel. Her “hour” has come. Jesus refers to her as “Mother” only once in John—as He gives her away. She is asked to give up the one thing she thought she had, her one claim to fame, her special relationship to her special Son. John seems hardly a substitute. She is willing. And in this final gift, her maternity is expanded. Or rather she comes to see what it had always been. Her self-gift was to Christ, yes, but to “the whole Christ.” In accepting her maternity of the Head, she was all along accepting her maternity of His whole Body. Her burning charity, full of grace, always included us all. And with her at that moment on Good Friday, we come to realize the full meaning of the Holy Family as we too, in the person of St. John, are received into it.

John Cavadini is Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame, The McGrath-Cavadini Director of the McGrath Institute for Church Life, and a faculty advisor for the Irish Rover.

Photo Credit: The Holy Family by Juan Simón Gutiérrez

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