THE FAMILY FOR FAMILIES
REFLECTIONS ON THE LIFE OF JESUS, MARY, AND JOSEPH
FRANCIS L. FILAS, S.J.
Imprimi Potest: Leo D. Sullivan, S.J., Praepositus Provincialis
Nihil obstat: Joannes A. Schulien, S.T.D., Censor librorum
Imprimatur: Moyses E. Koley, Archiepiscopus Milwaukiensis Die 15
The Bruce Publishing Company
Printed in the United States of America
Head of the Holy Family
Patron of Christian Families
To Husbands and Wives
New Testament texts are quoted from "The New Testament of Our
Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, a Revision of the Challoner-Rheims
Version." Copyright by the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine.
To Husbands and Wives
IN THE lives of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph immense treasures of
strength and inspiration are at hand to guide Catholic family life.
This book intends to open some of these treasures of our Faith, to
show its readers how to sample them further. Various reflections
that flow from the portrayal of the life of the Holy Family have
been adapted to fit family life. It is hoped that they will assist
Catholic husbands and wives to reproduce in their own homes the
spirit of holiness and happiness that prevailed at Bethlehem and at
FRANCIS L. FILAS, S.J.
University of Detroit
Feast of the Holy Family
January 12, 1947
To Husbands And Wives
Chapter 1: THE SETTING
Map of Palestine
Chapter 2: BEFORE CHRIST WAS BORN
Chapter 3: YOUR MARRIAGE
Prayer to Be Said by Husband and Wife
Chapter 4: "A CHILD IS BORN TO US"
Chapter 5: THE SACRIFICE BEGINS
Family Consecration to the Sacred Heart
Chapter 6: THE MAGI
Chapter 7: THE FLIGHT
Map of Route to Egypt
Chapter 8: THE LOSS
Chapter 9: THE HIDDEN LIFE
Prayer to St. Joseph
Chapter 10: SEPARATION
Family Consecration to the Holy Family
"WHEN God in His mercy decided to carry out the work of man's
redemption, so long expected through the centuries, He arranged
to perform His task in such a way that in its beginnings it might
show forth to the world the august spectacle of a divinely founded
"In this all men were to behold the perfect exemplar of domestic
society as well as of all virtue and holiness.
"A benign Providence established the Holy Family in order that all
Christians in whatever walk of life or situation might have a reason
and an incentive to practice every virtue, provided they fix their
gaze on the Holy Family." Thus did Pope Leo XIII write in 1892.
A divinely founded family...the perfect exemplar of all virtue and
holiness...for all Christians in whatever walk of life. "Why!" you say,
"my family life is to make me holy? Did Pope Leo mean that
ordinary people can be and should be saints? We who live in the
world, who have to spend most of our time watching the budget
and earning enough to support ourselves and our children? Our
ideals are subjected to continual battering by the un-Christian
teachings and practices of so many of our neighbors. We can't
spend our whole day in prayer like the saints of old. Evidently the
Pope did not realize how ordinary we are. We try to live a good
Catholic life, but we don't deserve special credit for that. Holiness
is something reserved for a few select laymen, for priests and
religious, for monks and nuns in austere monasteries and
But the Pope did mean you--you and your husband or wife as well
as your whole family. You can be and should be saints, for saints
are those common-sense people who act according to their
realization that all their happiness lies in obeying God's law
perfectly as it is shown them by the Church and by their
conscience. Holiness means happiness. Holy people are happy
people at peace with God, with others, and with themselves.
There is only one requirement. You must do God's will. This
embraces various obligations and gives you corresponding rights
and privileges. God's will in your regard is not something
frightening and preternatural, brought down to you by angels amid
trumpet blasts, thunder, lightning, and earthquakes. No, it consists
in the observance of the commandments, the frequent reception of
the sacraments, and the practice of certain virtues in your
everyday life. That is all. Call it homely, call it an everyday,
ordinary, humdrum rule of life if you wish; but you can't call it
difficult and beyond your strength. God's grace is with you at
every turn, sufficient and more than sufficient to help you serve
Sometimes in your efforts you perhaps will fall out of weariness or
discouragement; but you rise quickly, and trusting in God's
abundant grace, you go forward again. Your goal must ever be the
perfect love of God manifested in perfect love for His creatures,
your "neighbors"--your husband or your wife, your children, your
friends, all with whom you come into contact.
You look for inspiration to attain such an ideal. You ask for a proof
to convince yourself that everyday joys can be the means to serve
God perfectly; or on the other hand you are possibly too close to
the earthly conditions of daily work attended with monotony,
disappointment, worry, and fatigue. This makes it hard to believe
that in so ordinary a way you can become someone so
extraordinary as a saint, known to God as His special image, His
temple in whom He loves to dwell.
You want proof and inspiration? You wish to see everyday life
made into a steppingstone to the very heights of heaven? Then
you need only look at the Holy Family. In the following pages that
is what you will see. You are going to behold Jesus, Mary, and
Joseph. They not only possessed human nature like yours, but
they performed workaday tasks as you do. They ate and drank and
slept and cleaned house and earned a living and prayed and had
their neighbors just like you. Yet who were they? They were Jesus
Christ, God, Second Person of the eternal Blessed Trinity, who took
to Himself a body and soul like ours: Mary, the blessed Virgin
mother of God, all-perfect, in whom there was never the slightest
sin or imperfection; and Joseph, he whom Jesus called "Father," the
virginal husband of the Mother of God.
Have you ever stopped to do a little arithmetic in studying Christ's
life? Jesus had a tremendous mission to accomplish. He was to
teach mankind the new and difficult law of brotherly love; He was
to redeem us by means of intense suffering and a painful and
disgraceful death; He was to found a Church that would last for all
time as the only certain road to salvation. Nonetheless, with such a
task before Him, the Son of God spent ten times as much of His
life in obscurity as in His public apostolate. We are told of no
miracles, no preaching, no teaching of the multitudes during that
period. There was merely a hidden and ordinary family life with
two lovable persons as His intimate and chosen companions,
Joseph and Mary.
No human being has ever been or will ever be holier than this
husband and wife. Yet these two souls did not help Jesus in His
preaching and teaching, for Joseph was already dead when Jesus
left Nazareth to begin His career; and as far as we know, Mary
stayed quietly at home during almost all of the Public Life.
Actually, then, Joseph and Mary gained their immeasurable
holiness by offering Jesus the love of a father and mother in a true
family, while Jesus in His turn tendered them the homage of a son.
Could any lives have been more ordinary than those at Bethlehem,
Egypt, and Nazareth--yet were any lives ever more holy?
This is the lesson of the Holy Family. The will of God must count
for everything in our daily lives. Prosaic deeds done for God can
lead to spectacular holiness. We will be repeating this lesson again
and again throughout this book. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were
human, intensely human in the best sense of the word. They show
us how our lives, too, should be human--truly warm and Godlike.
By this means we can be sanctifying ourselves more and more. The
method is simple. Perhaps we have been following it all along
without realizing the fact. At any rate, the leaders are set before
us. All we need do is follow.
1. Decree 3777, S.R.C.
THE FAMILY FOR FAMILIES
CHAPTER ONE: THE SETTING
ACTUALLY it should strike us like a thunderbolt to read in Holy
Scripture that Jesus was like us in all things, sin alone excepted
(Heb. 4:15). Only too often, however, our appreciation of the fact
of the Incarnation is dulled because we do not realize vividly that
true God became true man. In proportion as the divineness of
Christ impresses us, His humanness tends to recede into the
background of our minds, and we lose the benefit of that
tremendous attractive power of knowing that God walked our earth
in human form nineteen hundred years ago.
In parallel fashion we are prone to be left cold by the sanctity of
Mary and Joseph. The dizzy heights of their holiness draw our
eyes upward. hut our feet remain fixed in the chasm scooped out
by our sins and imperfections. We are afraid to call Mary and
Joseph our own. We are afraid to imitate them.
That is why we should make every effort to think of Jesus, Mary,
and Joseph as living in our world: close to us, real, our best
friends, human and understanding, whom no fault or misfortune
can drive away, provided only that we try to model our lives on
theirs. Once we know the actual conditions in which the Holy
Family lived, once we see the human world in which Jesus, Mary,
and Joseph spent their family life, we can more easily appreciate
What was the environment of the Holy Family? We are all naturally
curious on this score; but over and above mere curiosity, we ought
to seek out the details of the careers of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in
order to persuade ourselves how closely they resemble us. There is
no need to go to the mass of pious but unhistorical legends that
have grown up around the early life of our Lord. The gospel story
is more than enough to paint the essentials of the picture we are
seeking. If we amplify the Gospels with data gained from other
reliable sources, the pageant of the Holy Family passes before our
eyes with all its winsomeness and charm.
It would be well at the outset to explain the sources from which we
learn the nature of the Holy Land scene amid which Jesus, Mary,
and Joseph passed their lives. For one thing, the Gospels are full of
deft touches referring to details of their times. Archeology, too,
uncovers the well-preserved ruins of age-old buildings; from it we
can deduce customs and culture. Best of all, there is the present
oriental civilization which has changed little throughout the
centuries. Houses, dress, implements, food, and social usages have
withstood the changes that repeatedly revolutionized our Western
way of living. Combining all these facts we gain a rather detailed
and highly probable estimate of life in the Holy Land two thousand
Palestine, which derived its name from the Philistines of Old
Testament times, is surprisingly small. Lying at the southeastern
end of the Mediterranean Sea, it is only 150 miles long from north
to south. The Jordan River cuts it roughly in half as the river
courses south from Lake Genesareth (the Lake of Galilee) to empty
itself into the Dead Sea.
We are more concerned with the western half of Palestine, for most
of the life of the Holy Family was spent there. This section varies
greatly in width. In Judea in the south it is 60 miles wide, but it
grows more narrow until finally at its northern extremity in Galilee
its width is hardly 25 miles. Western Palestine is only half the area
of the state of Maryland--5000 square miles. It would fit ten times
within New York or Illinois, fifty times within Texas. Except for its
coastal plain along the Mediterranean, it is quite hilly, and a few
mountain-tops can usually be discerned along the horizon.
Because the traveling described in the Gospels was so often done
on foot, we think of the distances as far greater than they are in
actuality. Nazareth in Galilee in the north is 75 miles from
Jerusalem in Judea in the south. Bethlehem is five miles south of
Jerusalem. All in all, the territory which the Holy Family covered
by slow and tiresome journeys of days can now be traversed by a
fast airplane in a matter of minutes.
In the white Christmas scene so popularly represented Palestine's
climate is not pictured correctly. Snow falls rarely during the
winter, and even then it melts within a few hours. The winter
months--November to March inclusive--should more properly be
called the rainy season. The average temperature of the coldest
month, January, is only forty-six degrees. From April to October
the hot "dry season" sets in, but evening breezes and heavy
morning dews are sufficient to temper the worst heat of this
The crops and other vegetation of the Holy Land are influenced, of
course, by its climate. In the time of the Holy Family there existed
numerous forests and terraced vineyards. These have long since
disappeared because of the shiftlessness and misrule of the Turks
from the Middle Ages down to World War I. Consequently, erosion
and denudation of the land can be seen where formerly many a
Palestinian family--and probably our own Holy Family--raised
small truck gardens to help stock the household larder. Near-by
farms grew mainly wheat and barley. Other crops consisted of
corn, millet, spelt, lentils, beans, flax, and sometimes cotton. Rice
was not yet introduced.
One of the most interesting facts we can learn about Jesus, Mary,
and Joseph concerns the kinds of food they ate. The gospel
accounts intimate that they followed the customs of their times.
Other historical sources as well as incidental references in the
Bible tell us what those customs were.
The usual meals were two: a midday dinner and an evening supper,
which was the large meal of the day. Breakfast was too scanty to be
called a meal. It was no more than a cup of milk, a piece of butter,
or a few baked cakes with olive oil. Wooden spoons might have
been used instead of our modern silverware, but more likely eating
was done with the hands.
Bread, as always, was the staff of life, and was made of barley,
various kinds of wheat, or lentils. Mary baked her bread each day
as it was needed, although she could purchase it from the town
baker if she wished. She formed it into flat circular cakes about an
inch thick and nine inches across. For an oven she used a clay-
lined hole in the ground or an earthen or stone jar about three feet
high, inside which fuel was placed. Baking took place on the
outside of this portable oven or on the hot inside of the clay hole
once the embers were removed. In preparing her bread our Lady
did not use new leaven each day but kept a portion of the old
dough from day to day with which to start fermentation in a new
The rest of the diet of the Holy Family was made up largely of
vegetable food. Olives and olive oil, butter, milk, cheese, eggs, and
stewed fruit helped out this menu. Meat appeared rarely on the
table, and then it was mutton and beef.
Relish consisted of onions, garlic, or leek. For the equivalent of
our present-day dessert, figs, mulberries, pistachio nuts, almonds,
and pomegranates were available. Grapes were served either fresh
or sun dried as pressed cakes of raisins. Cucumbers were an ever
Mary's ordinary way of cooking food was to boil it, but she
occasionally roasted meat and broiled the fish from Lake
Genesareth much as her Son was to do for His apostles after His
Resurrection, years later. Often on the menu, this fish was
considered quite a delicacy in Galilee, and was pickled and dried
to be preserved. In preparing corn Our Lady parched or roasted it
at the fire. Lentils and beans were boiled into a delicious pottage,
often with meat seasoned with mint, anise, cummin, or mustard.
For sweetening Mary used wild honey instead of sugar. The salt
she bought was either rock salt from the shores of the Dead Sea or
that evaporated from the water of the Mediterranean.
The two beverages on the table at Nazareth were goat's milk and
wine. The butter made from this milk was sometimes solid,
sometimes merely semi-fluid heavy cream, sometimes the thick
curds from sour milk. Our Lady did the churning herself by jerking
a skin of milk back and forth or by beating the container with a
stick. The wine was kept in large goatskins in the cool cellar of the
house. From these it was drawn off into smaller goatskin "bottles"
for use at table.
We can hardly repeat often enough the value of knowing these
homely details of the life of the Holy Family. Jesus referred to
some of them in various of His parables or sermons, and showed
how well He was acquainted with everyday life in Palestine. Could
we ask for greater assurance from God that His gifts are good, and
that we should use the good things He has given us in this world as
helps to obtain our salvation and perfection?
Another personal detail that is highly interesting to us is the
appearance of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.
Following the customs of their day Jesus and Joseph had three
types of garments. In a climate so mild as that of Palestine no
more were necessary. The innermost garment next to the body
resembled our modern nightshirt and was called a sheet or sindon.
During strenuous labor other clothing was discarded in order to
permit freedom of action. Thus, for example, when some of the
apostles were fishing "naked" on the Lake of Galilee at the time
Jesus appeared to them (John 21), they were actually clad in this
undergarment. In other words, to wear only this sindon was to be
in a state of undress.
Over the sindon Jesus and Joseph wore the tunic--a sort of cassock
or dressing gown open down the front. This made up the usual
indoor costume at home or in the shop. A wide sash or girdle at the
waist and rather billowy long sleeves gave the garment pleasing
lines. For freedom in walking, the ankle-length skirt was slit about
a foot from the bottom on each side. Blue was its common color
although white with brown stripes or red, too, were favorites.
The third and outermost article of clothing was the cloak. The
foster father and his Son wore this cloak outdoors for protection
against cold and rain, or as a covering during sleep. When made of
fleece it was especially warm, although cotton and woolen cloth
were more usual. It resembled a vest in that it was sleeveless and
had an open front, but in length it reached almost to the ground.
Either this cloak or the tunic was the valuable "seamless garment"
for which the soldiers cast lots when Christ was crucified on
For headdress Jesus and Joseph wound a sort of long kerchief into
a turban. Another kerchief covered the neck and shoulders for
protection against the blazing sun. In Nazareth as in all the Orient
it was considered disrespectful to pass anyone bareheaded, so the
two men must have worn the turban almost always.
They were bearded and wore their hair long, as paintings
universally represent them. Two locks--ringlets--dropped from
their temples as a vestige of the old Hebrew tradition whereby the
Israelites were distinguished from idolatrous peoples who cut
these locks as an offering to their gods.
For foot covering the Holy Family used sandals during the summer
and shoes during the winter or rainy season. The ordinary sandal
consisted of a wood or leather sole with thongs attached, to be
strapped around the instep. Shoes were made of coarse material
and protected the entire foot. Socks were seldom if ever worn.
Since footwear was prescribed strictly for outdoor use, it was
always left at the entrance of the house.
Mary's dress resembled the attire of her menfolk rather closely.
Her distinctive mark was a veil and (for outdoor use) a mantle or
great shawl. Judging from the colors usually employed, she wore a
red dress with a blue mantle and a large white veil covering her
whole body when she traveled in public. Her hair fell in long
tresses, probably left unbraided, as it was more modest to do.
From our knowledge of Palestinian houses we can deduce rather
closely the nature of the home of the Holy Family at Bethlehem
and Nazareth. At the outset, however, we must rid ourselves of the
preconceived notions which Western experience and legendary
tale have given us.
Palestinian houses followed a rather uniform pattern. Like the
present-day houses at Bethlehem, that of the Holy Family was
probably built of rough-hewn limestone blocks cemented with
limestone mortar. It had at least one upper room, built above a
lower room at street level, and reached by outside stone stairs. The
dimensions of these rooms approximated 15 feet in length, 12 feet
in width, and 6 feet in height.
The lower room at Nazareth may well have been St. Joseph's
workshop, extending back as a cave into the hill rising directly
behind the house. Artisans like St. Joseph worked in the street
outside their shops. The shops themselves were merely places to
The living room of the Holy Family (the upper chamber) was
windowless and very simply furnished. Its only light came through
the doorway. There was no fireplace or chimney, but a hearth
placed near the door provided a spot for cooking where the smoke
could easily escape. On a ledge running around the wall the gaily
colored mats which were spread on the floor at night for sleeping
purposes were rolled up during the day.
A large lamp hanging from a center beam shed a dim light at night-
-a rather curious looking lamp to us. It resembled a saucer with its
sides folded together at one place, to form a neck for the cloth
wick that rested in the supply of olive oil. Underneath this lamp
was a painted stool or table together with a few chairs. Here the
Three took their quiet meal.
The roof of their house was flat--a cemented or earthen surface
overlaid on the beams that spanned the side walls. It was reached
by the outside stairway. During the cool evenings of the summer
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph retired to it for conversation and quiet
prayer. They used the roof much as we use a front porch or
Joseph's position as carpenter placed him in the respectable
middle class of artisans. Judging from his occupation, he was not
desperately poor, nor on the contrary could he be called wealthy.
His tools were the hammer, saw, ax, plane, chisel, and bow drill.
Working in wood, he was a general handyman for making plows,
milking tubs, winnowing fans, yokes, forks, and household
furniture. Joseph on many occasions did not receive pay for each
article as he fashioned it. Instead, he agreed under a sort of
"blanket contract" barter system to look after the farm implements
of his neighbors in so far as was necessary. In return for these
services he received produce from his various customers at
At this point we close our introductory picture of daily life with
the Holy Family. One feature in particular stands out: Jesus, Mary,
and Joseph lived a genuinely "human" life, using the good things
of this earth as was proper. There was no puritanical refusal on
their part to accept the blessings of God's creation as if these gifts
were evil in themselves. Rather, the inherent bounty of Nature
gave them ever so many opportunities to praise and thank the
eternal Father in heaven for what He saw fit to bestow on them
according to His wisdom and providence.
This is a lesson we, too, should bear in mind. Everything God has
created is good in itself, and evil and sin enter only in the misuse
of a creature. The great rule of life is always the same, whether in
the Holy Family of Nazareth or the Jones family of twentieth-
century Smithville: Because all creation is good, we should make
use of it in so far as it helps us to serve God and to save our souls.
"What a simple rule to remember!" you say. "How easy to live by!
Why call it to my attention so sharply?"
Why? Because the cold pages of history testify that scores of
heresies crashed, morally bankrupt, since they rested somehow or
other on confusion of this truth of the goodness of creation. Before
Christ came on this earth, the pagan world was in moral chaos
because it could not accept the fact. It could choose only between
the two extreme errors. One group of pagans--the Stoics--thought
that creation in itself was evil, and everything material must be
avoided completely. Others held that creation could not be
misused in any way whatever. These men represented the two
excesses of human conduct that continued to harass the Church's
For instance, in Christian times there were heretics like the
Manicheans of the second century, the Albigensians of the twelfth,
and the rigid Calvinists of the sixteenth, who frowned on
legitimate pleasures and looked on material things as evils to be
tolerated at best if not to be shunned absolutely. However, such a
mode of living was impossible for a man made up of body and
soul. It was an insult to the wisdom and goodness and love of his
Creator, and it could lead him only to unhappiness, sin, and
despair. One primitive heresy built on this philosophy of the anti-
material (the Docetist group) even taught that Christ's body was an
appearance, that He was only a phantom, because as God He could
not possess so evil a thing as a human body!
At the other extreme in all ages were the frankly materialistic
pleasure seekers, who sank into all sorts of excesses in reveling in
utter license and luxury.
Meanwhile the Church serenely kept pure the truth which Christ
had confided to its charge, dauntlessly guarding it even though it
conflicted violently with the extremists. Catholics were always
taught that man is composed of soul and body; that the body is
not something sinful although tendencies to sin are present in it
because of original sin; that material things are to aid the body
directly and the soul indirectly in order to attain man's purpose in
this world and in the next; and therefore that creation should be
used (because it is good) but not misused (because it is only a
means to eternal life, not eternal life itself).
The Church went further. It taught that the body had dignity
because it is the temple of the Holy Spirit. It sanctified the body
during life with the sacraments instituted by Christ, and it blessed
the body in death and buried it in consecrated ground. Despite all
the sneers and scoffs of heretics and infidels it set forth Christ's
doctrine that the glorified body as well as the soul would receive
the reward of eternal life.
The Church in its liturgy again and again recalls the goodness of
creation for our benefit. In fact, to take a specific example, the
whole doctrine of the sacramentals is based on this principle.
The sacramentals are things or actions which the Church uses in a
sort of imitation of the sacraments in order to obtain temporal and
spiritual favors for the faithful. Sacramentals such as medals and
scapulars are badges of belief, created things that are external
signs of internal faith in God's goodness and kindness to us, marks
of trust that He will hear our prayers.
Well known are the sacramentals which call down God's blessing.
With the attitude of employing everything God has made as a
means for eternal salvation, the Church has approved blessings for
a host of articles so diverse--and apparently so unholy--as
automobiles, fire-fighting equipment, blast furnaces, radios, bees,
bridges, and beer.
Four hundred years ago the "Spiritual Exercises," the "golden book"
of St. Ignatius of Loyola, was a major factor in throwing back the
moral anarchy of the Protestant Revolt and supplanting it with the
revivified Catholic Counterreformation. Yet the bedrock element
of the "Spiritual Exercises," its "Principle and Foundation" upon
which Ignatius built his entire system of bringing souls back to
God, was simply a restatement of the lesson of the Holy Family on
the proper use of created things.
"Man was created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and
by this means to save his soul. The other things on the face of the
earth were created because of man, and that they might help him
to obtain the end for which he was created. Whence it follows that
man should use these creatures in so far as they help him to reach
his end, and he ought to free himself from them in so far as they
hinder him from that purpose."
Practically, then, the Holy Family's lesson of the "good earth" can
exemplify several cardinal principles:
If failure, disappointment, sickness, or any sort of suffering come
into your life, remember that they come from the same Father who
can give only good gifts. He sends or at least permits trials to enter
your life only for your greater good. Therefore, make the supreme
act of love by trusting in His providence, knowing that no slightest
event can occur outside the influence of His all-perfect wisdom.
Thus, even hardships can help you.
In this connection, too, it is well to understand correctly the
attitude of the great ascetical saints who voluntarily gave up many
lawful pleasures. They did not act in an attitude of pain-for-pain's-
sake. Rather, while recognizing the intrinsic worth of all creation,
they felt that they should offer their sacrifices as penance for their
own sins and as reparation for the sins of the world. Prudence led
them always. So, too, you can freely make small sacrifices
occasionally in the spirit of penance, reparation, and love. The
easiest yet most selfless abnegation of this sort lies in accepting
willingly what God sends you each day.
When you see clearly that some created thing is an obstacle in
your path toward God, that it robs you of your peace of conscience
or is an occasion of sin, be generous in removing it from your life
at once. The thing is good in itself, but it is not good for you.
However, these foregoing principles refer to the use of creation
more or less negatively. Much more important for our present
purpose is the positive aspect: to use creation in so far as it helps
For instance, don't be afraid to see the hand of God in the
legitimate pleasures of your life. It would be puritanical and
downright erroneous to think that your married life is any less
holy in proportion as it is more intimate. By accepting the good
things of life with gratitude to Him who created them, you can gain
merit, for every such action becomes a prayer of thanksgiving. In
fact, you should look on your temporal blessings as a faint
foretaste of the exuberant goodness of Almighty God, who wishes
to bestow on you His own everlasting happiness in heaven.
In your work or in your recreation you should not think that your
merit is necessarily less because your enjoyment is greater.
Similarly, the mutual love of husband and wife as well as the love
of children are probably the keenest and deepest sources of joy in
family life. God intended that you should relish this affection.
Accept it, then, in the same spirit: "What love gives, love should
Perhaps you wonder why Catholic teaching seems to say so little
about this sanctification of the happiness and the pleasant things
in life. The reason is not too far to seek. Usually, to spiritualize joy
is easy: to spiritualize sorrow is hard, for it is more difficult to be
faithful to God in times of discouragement. Hence, the emphasis is
placed where it is needed.
Later in this very book we shall have occasion to call attention to
the hardships Joseph and Mary encountered. This does not mean
that their life was somber and dreary, nor that married life in
imitation of theirs is full of suffering. True, the difficulties are not
to be minimized. They should be foreseen and prepared for in a
general way. That will be our purpose in mentioning them frankly.
But the fact that they will be discussed does not mean that they
are predominant. They are far outweighed by the sunshine and joy
which God instills into every home where Christian ideals are the
rule of the day and the hour.
And it is this sunshine which you will doubly enjoy if you accept it
from God's hands with explicit thanksgiving and love.
CHAPTER TWO: BEFORE CHRIST WAS BORN
NO NARRATIVE can excel the accuracy and charm of the accounts
of the Holy Family given by Matthew and Luke. However, our
twentieth-century Western minds are often unacquainted with the
old oriental customs, geography, and history to which the Gospels
refer. We are confronted with obscurities and difficulties that call
for further comment not because of a fault in the gospel text but
by reason of our own lack of information. Hence, the gospel story
must be amplified with incidental side lights and explanations
before we pause to reflect on the story itself.
"Now the origin of Christ was in this wise. When Mary his mother
had been betrothed to Joseph, she was found, before they came
together, to be with child by the Holy Spirit" (Matt. 1:18).
This betrothal which St. Matthew mentions was in a sense
equivalent to the engagement of our modern times. It was,
however, much more binding. The bridegroom conducted all
arrangements with the father of the bride and gave him a purchase
price for his daughter. Then the betrothal took place. It lasted
about a year, and during that time the couple was called husband
and wife although they did not live together. The wife was bound
most strictly to remain virginal as a special sign of loyalty to her
husband. That is why Mary's predicament was so serious when by
divine intervention she became the mother of Jesus. The miracle
of miracles had taken place. God took on human nature within her
womb. But who would believe her story even if she felt free to
Although Mary "was found to be with child" while she was yet
merely espoused to Joseph, it seems certain that her neighbors
were not the ones who discovered her pregnancy. Later, Jesus was
to be criticized sharply by His bitter enemies who looked in vain
for any pretext to vilify Him. Nonetheless, they never cast the
slightest shadow on the legitimacy of His birth. Instead, they used
the humbleness of His apparent descent from Joseph, a craftsman,
to rebuke Him for His high aspirations. The secret of the
Incarnation was evidently well kept.
Contrariwise, Joseph himself, apparently, as well as the Nazarenes
did not personally discover Our Lady's motherhood. St. Matthew's
words, "was found," strongly suggest that Joseph was informed of
the fact; but by whom? Not by Mary, else she would have
manifested the divine source of her maternity. Accordingly it
would appear that some close relative--perhaps her mother--was
deputed by Our Lady before her marriage took place to tell Joseph
that she had conceived. Keeping the matter secret would have
been gravely unjust to her spouse.
All this must have happened no later than four months after the
angel Gabriel visited Nazareth and Mary consented to become the
Mother of God. Such a period appears reasonable, for after that
time there would have been external evidence of Mary's
pregnancy, and her subsequent marriage to Joseph would have
been useless to guard the honor of the virgin mother and her
Meanwhile, "Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing
to expose her to reproach, was minded to put her away privately"
(Matt. 1:19). This passage is classic for its short but meaningful
description of the towering nobility of Joseph's character. St.
Matthew bestowed a precious title when he called him the "just
man," for he told us in this manner that Joseph observed God's law
in its fullness and excelled in every virtue and good quality.
Joseph's conduct as further portrayed excellently bears out
Matthew's estimate. By Jewish law Joseph could have broken off
his engagement and divorced his spouse publicly if he found her
guilty of adultery. This type of divorce would have revealed the
disgraceful charge, and according to the letter of the law Mary
would have been liable to stoning to death. Whether or not so
drastic a penalty would have been carried out is doubtful, but
Joseph would not enforce it. He could not believe that Mary had
sinned. Nonetheless, he was bound to observe the law of the Jews.
Terribly perplexed and dismayed, in his mental anguish he
decided to adopt the course that was most favorable to Mary and
yet was consonant with justice. By choosing to divorce his spouse
privately (instead of publicly), he would not be forced to make
known the cause of the divorce. But always he was hesitant, and
his hesitancy shows the force of his belief that Mary had been
faithful to him.
As St. Jerome puts the case, "This is evidence for Mary, that
Joseph, knowing Mary's chastity and wondering at what had
occurred, concealed in silence the mystery which he did not
fathom." Ultimately, faced with a problem that seemed insoluble,
Joseph began to feel that the private divorce was the only means
of being fair to Mary while not disobeying his conscience. Unless
the circumstances were somehow altered, he certainly could not
proceed to marry his spouse.
"But while he thought on these things, behold an angel of the Lord
appeared to him in a dream, saying, `Do not be afraid, Joseph, son
of David, to take to thee Mary, thy wife, for that which is begotten
in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she shall bring forth a son, and
thou shalt call his name Jesus; for he shall save his people from
their sins.' So Joseph, arising from sleep, did as the angel of the
Lord had commanded him and took unto him his wife" (Matt. 1:20,
Here St. Matthew relates that at the angel's command Joseph
married his betrothed. Realizing keenly now his role in the plans
of Divine Providence, the prudent husband bent every effort to
protect Mary. With the Roman census already announced, he was
obliged to leave for Bethlehem where he had to register. What
better course of action could he adopt than to take his wife with
him to Bethlehem, a strange town, and thus remove her from
Nazareth, dangerous for the gossip that would surely arise there?
"And he did not know her till she had brought forth her first-born
son" (Matt. 1:25). Throughout Church history various heretics have
alleged that according to this sentence Joseph was the natural
father of other sons of Mary after Christ was born. Against this
warping of the text Church writers from earliest times have
insistently pointed out that St. Matthew uses "till" and "first-born"
in a sense often found in Holy Scripture. "Till" can refer to action
or lack of action up to a point, without necessarily implying that
the action then changes. For example, St. Paul writes to Timothy,
"Until I come, be diligent in reading, in exhortation, and in
teaching" (1 Tim. 4:13). Quoting Psalm 109:1 he adds, "[Christ]
must reign until `he has put all his enemies under his feet'" (1 Cor.
15:25). Certainly, in these texts St. Paul does not intend Timothy to
stop being diligent after he arrives, nor does he think that Christ's
supremacy will cease with the defeat of His enemies.
Similarly, "first-born" as applied to Christ does not mean that Mary
had other children. Jewish custom gave this title to the first son
whether or not other brothers followed him. Even in modern
English we have an analogous usage when we speak of first-aid
treatment without understanding that further medical care must
Yet the greatest difficulty in these passages concerns the
perplexing question: why did God send this strange type of
suffering to His two most loyal creatures? Mary was all-sinless, not
even momentarily subject to that deprivation of sanctifying grace
which we call original sin. Even more, her fidelity to her Creator
made her worthy as no other human creature ever was to fashion
the body of God incarnate in her womb for nine months. As for
Joseph, he was second in dignity and holiness to Mary alone. God
entrusted to him His two choicest treasures so that Joseph was to
become the virginal husband of Mary and the foster father of
Jesus. Nevertheless, God sent this couple a heavy cross, most
difficult to explain.
Mary's conception, when first disclosed, was compromising
evidence. Had Joseph been a selfish, jealous spouse, the
estrangement would have been complete. As it was, these two
hearts who loved each other to a degree unequaled by any other
husband and wife, could only suffer intensely until God stepped in
to remedy the situation. The very perfection of Mary's love for
Joseph and of Joseph's love for Mary made their pain keener.
Mary felt in conscience that she was not permitted to reveal the
divine nature of her conception to her husband. Joseph knew that
he was not permitted to marry an unfaithful spouse. Mary could
take no external action to solve the problem. Joseph had in a sense
the harder choice of taking action. He evidently was forced to do
something; but what could he do? No matter which course he
followed, grave difficulties faced him.
We can be certain that both Mary and Joseph prayed to God for
help and light. Mary, in full conformity to God's will, was ready to
sacrifice the love of her spouse as well as her own reputation if
need be. Joseph asked only for inspiration to do what was right.
And in God's good time the angel was sent to remove the trial by
revealing to Joseph that he was the virginal husband of the very
Mother of God.
Did God repay Joseph and Mary for their fidelity? No, it was more
than mere repayment. It was the hundredfold of supernatural
grace and joy and justified mutual confidence, "pressed down and
flowing over," so that the souls of the two spouses thrilled toward
each other as they naturally and humanly could never have done.
They realized now their full destiny. Two wills made one in the
love of a virginal marriage, they knew that together they were to
rear the infant Jesus to the full stature of the man Christ. Although
Jesus as God was to have all knowledge, nonetheless as a human
child He was to imitate the magnificent mutual love He would see
in His parents.
Henceforth, Joseph and Mary knew that together they were to
cooperate with the special plans of the Three Persons in One God--
those mysterious plans hidden in the depths of eternal eons of the
Godhead. They were to be favored as none of their fellow creatures
had ever been although their responsibilities and their crosses
would be proportionately greater. But they were to work out their
destiny together--that was the great point, the new content of the
angel's message to Joseph. Joseph was initiated into the
incarnation of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, the
mystery of mysteries of which Mary was already a participant. All
this was part of the hundredfold reward God bestowed on this
couple, and from the bottom of their hearts they could only say, as
they began to fathom it all, "In Thee, O Lord, have we hoped. We
have not been confounded!" It was joy almost too deep to be
experienced on this earth, but they did experience it because they
were espoused husband and wife as well as the two saints of
What lessons here for every husband and wife! They, too, are to
work out their salvation and their perfection together, each
depending on the other, each assisting the other. In the perfection
of married love their personalities become merged, as it were, as
completely as possible. For them God's commandment, "Thou shalt
love thy neighbor," finds its first and chief expression in their love
one for the other. Each is bound by obligations toward the other,
each possesses the rights handed over by the other at the moment
of their marriage. In the fullness of this mutual love, this mutual
unselfish give-and-take, is included their love and service of
Then, too, the experience of Mary and Joseph offers a true example
of a misunderstanding that can arise without the fault of either
party. In this case two saints were involved, more closely united by
flawless love than was any other couple in the history of the world.
Our Lady knew the price her course of action would cost her, but
she was even more distressed over the pain it caused her spouse.
Until the time when God saw fit to manifest His plans, Mary's only
course was that of trust. God's plans were far grander than
anything a created intellect--even one so uniquely attuned as
Mary's--could plumb or imagine. Consequently, the only course to
adopt in the meantime was a wholehearted submission and
conformity to His will.
Joseph's heroism was of the same caliber. Had he been spiteful,
self-centered, resentful, he would have indulged in harsh
recriminations of Mary. However, because he was convinced that
somewhere and somehow all the facts would become evident and
Mary would be justified, he withheld a rash judgment that would
only have made matters worse.
In your own life when can you say that a misunderstanding arose
in which you were in no wise at fault? Joseph and Mary were
perfect; we ordinary mortals are not--that is the difference between
them and us. Remembering this difference if misunderstandings
occur in family life, you must try to realize that there is another
side to every argument even though at the moment you do not or
cannot see it. It is very rare that a problem has only one solution
which of necessity must be right; and it is even more rare that that
single solution must uniformly be your own. Ordinarily there are
various ways of adjusting a difficult situation which causes
distressing friction in the family.
Realistic couples bear in mind that with human nature as it is,
married life cannot be one everlasting honeymoon. Two minds and
two wills, even though united most intimately and sincerely in
matrimony, belong to two different people. As a result, there will
occasionally be different outlooks, different opinions, different
reactions, all of which have to be adjusted lest harmony be lost
when they clash. Such differences are normal even before we
admit the possibility that one or both parties may be at fault.
Human faults!--and there a whole new chapter of possibilities for
misunderstanding opens out. Gained in childhood, kept and
perhaps strengthened in adult years, those faults will be taken
with us to the grave. They are with every individual constantly.
The most attractive characters of husbands and wives, try as they
may, will find their faults ever recurring, mixed with all their good
points. Faults are in reality based on virtues. They are good things
gone to excess. We are not speaking here of vice, of course--of
habitual faults so serious that they lead to grievous sin. We are
talking of the "little things" that raise the bumps in life's highway:
self-centeredness, unwillingness to admit error, slovenliness in
dress or at table, disregard for the feelings of others, sarcasm,
irritability, reluctance to overlook and forget accidental mistakes--
these are only a few of the "little things" that cause mutual pain to
two souls who love each other dearly.
Usually, the best way to deal with misunderstandings is to bring
the trouble out into the light. If possible, discuss a sore point
frankly and coolly before the end of the day. Feelings that are hurt
over long periods fester like sores; and as troubles pile up, the
vicious circle begins that adds imaginary new troubles merely
because the old ones are supplying the momentum.
Above all, be ready to arbitrate. When ruffled tempers have calmed
down, sit down side by side and analyze the argument as if you
were a third-party umpire called in for the purpose. Find just
where and why the point of difference occurs; and from there, a
little yielding on each side should bring satisfaction.
Don't forget the moods to which you, like every human, are
subject. When tired or slightly ill, you say and do things which
normally you would avoid. This is why a misunderstanding
between two tired people cannot be settled very easily on the spot.
In such a case drop the argument for the time being (even though
you think you know you are right!), and perhaps a good night's
sleep will reduce the troublesome question to the insignificant
status of a soap bubble or even--and this is quite possible--a
The trial of Joseph and Mary has still another great lesson. If trials
and sufferings come into our lives, we complain almost
involuntarily. We wonder why God has sent us this cross, we ask
what we have done to deserve it. All the good deeds we have ever
performed appear as so many reasons why God should have spared
From Joseph and Mary we learn the answer to such a complaint.
Should God spare us because of our goodness? Then what should
He have done to Joseph and Mary? No one ever surpassed them in
holiness. Moreover, they were engaged in the very act of closest
cooperation with the divine plan to send a Redeemer to this earth.
Spiritual writers have often enunciated the truth of the Christian
life that nearness to Jesus means nearness to the cross. Nearness
to Jesus does mean self-abnegation, which is merely another word
for self-denial or selflessness. It does not mean unhappiness, for
by the paradoxical law of God's providence, suffering borne for
Him does not take away happiness but rather deepens and
Since Christ chose to redeem the world by suffering, those who are
closest to Him act as co-redeemers of the world by uniting their
sufferings to His. Then, too, there is the exalted union with Him
whereby His friends imitate Him in every detail not for any
"practical" purpose but solely and wholly for love, for he or she
who loves desires always to become more and more like the
beloved. If we apply these maxims to the conduct of Joseph and
Mary, we understand why these two hearts had to suffer most (and
knew they had to suffer most), for they loved most and were
nearest to the Heart of Jesus.
For ourselves these reflections remove all cause of complaint.
Unlike Joseph and Mary we are sinners and have done wrong or at
least have been unfaithful repeatedly. In one sense we are
receiving our just reward; we deserve to be punished for
transgressing the law of our Maker. In another sense our crosses
are favors from the hand of God. They are opportunities to gain
merit here on earth, so that the eternal reward for fidelity may be
greater. They are chances to atone for sin here on earth so that the
temporal punishment in purgatory may be less. They are forms of
cautery that remove habits of sin from our souls; or even, as the
highest favor from God, they are invitations to unite our trials to
the sufferings of Jesus so that His redemptive act may be applied
more fully to souls, to save souls who otherwise might be lost.
Despite all this the great problem of suffering still remains a deep
mystery, and we admit that our minds have never been able to
fathom its full solution. Why suffering at all? It is a consequence
of the presence of sin in the world. We simply know that there
must be suffering which no one, rich or poor, good or bad, can
escape. We also know that Jesus has marked out a way for us to
follow. Without Him we would be lost in the fog that beset the
pagans of old (and which still besets our modern intellectual
pagans) when they tried to escape suffering, and when, having
failed to avoid it, they could only ask fruitlessly, "Why?"
Christ could have redeemed us without suffering for us. Instead,
He actually chose pain, disgrace, and disappointment because He
knew that by imitating Him we could sweeten the sufferings we
sometimes would have to bear. This is the Christian answer to the
problem, and never in any circumstance will it fail to be the sole,
Joseph and Mary have gone ahead of us in following the path of
Jesus, and that is enough for us to know. In following them we will
always find internal peace, no matter what problem or trial might
CHAPTER THREE: YOUR MARRIAGE
THERE were many reasons why our Lord willed to come into the
world, born of an espoused virgin. Primarily, the marriage
safeguarded His own honor as well as the reputation of His virgin
mother. By this means, too, He and His mother were supported and
protected and loved by a father and husband. Moreover, because
of the marriage Christ's miraculous conception was hidden from
the world so that He successfully remained obscure until the time
for the public life of teaching arrived.
But God did not establish the union of Joseph and Mary solely for
these reasons, as a direct preparation for bringing Jesus into the
world. One purpose of it, at least, was to continue through all
future centuries. In Joseph the husband and Mary the wife, the
husbands and wives of ages to come were to possess lovable,
imitable ideals. If in looking at the Holy Family we were to pass by
the marriage of Joseph and Mary as a model for every marriage, we
would be neglecting one of the greatest lessons God intended
when He chose His virgin mother and foster father.
Christian marriage like the state of virginity has been assailed by
heretical onslaughts of all ages. It is now being attacked viciously
by our own twentieth-century pagans. Nonetheless, it still stands
out and will always stand out as the state which God Himself
instituted when He created man. In the marriage of Joseph and
Mary God gave us another mark of approval to show us its holiness
and to counteract the campaigns of ridicule directed against it.
Now, it is true that in frequent instances in Catholic literature
Joseph and Mary have been presented as models for the virginal
state almost to the exclusion of their position as husband and wife.
Such a presentation represents one extreme and is incomplete. Nor
in placing emphasis on the holy couple's patronage of Christian
married life do we intend to go to the opposite extreme and deny
their patronage of a life of virginity taken on for Christ's sake. The
fact is that Almighty God in His providence made a remarkable
arrangement whereby the couple could serve at one and the same
time as exemplars and patrons of two states of life which normally
would exclude each other. Joseph and Mary possessed true
marriage rights but did not make use of them since theirs was a
In the words of Leo XIII quoted earlier, "A benign Providence
established the Holy Family in order that all Christians in whatever
walk of life or situation might have a reason and an incentive to fix
their gaze on the Holy Family. In Joseph, therefore, heads of the
household are blessed with the unsurpassed model of fatherly
watchfulness and care. In the holy virgin Mother of God, mothers
possess an extraordinary ideal of love, modesty, submission, and
perfect loyalty." Thus, it is as the holiest husband and wife of all
times that Joseph and Mary invite us to look at the exalted holiness
which can exist in Christian married life.
Holiness in Christian marriage? Definitely! Perhaps you have not
realized how many means you have to sanctify yourself in the love
of your husband or wife. You are living in a pagan world where the
movies, newspapers, and radio publicize divorce and often marital
infidelity. They make light of marriage, or at best treat it as a sort
of business contract which can be taken on at will and then gaily
broken for any selfish pretext. It is no wonder, then, if you have
found difficulty in seeing clearly the holiness of your life. The
opposition has been so strong that you have been on the
defensive, and you have not had the unhampered opportunity to
rise higher and discern how your marriage leads you to God.
There is a discouraging and crippling attitude that looks on
marriage as something imperfect or as a sort of unavoidable
tolerance, a legalized outlet for human sensuality. Such an attitude
is not only wrong and puritanical, but worse still, blatantly pagan.
Could Joseph and Mary have been true husband and wife (even
though virginally) if such had been the case? Their marriage would
have been an implicit approval of the error.
Pius XI, speaking officially as Christ's representative on earth,
repeatedly refers in his great encyclical on Christian marriage to
"the great sanctity of Christian wedlock," "the sacred partnership
of true marriage," "the blessings that flow from it as...the principle
and foundation of domestic society."
One of the causes for a lack of appreciation of the intrinsic
holiness of Christian marriage lies in a misunderstanding of what
is meant by a less perfect state of life. Notice that the words are
"less perfect"--and "less perfect" does not mean "imperfect." For
example, a bishop is in a more perfect state of life than a priest: or
again, in leaving for a difficult and dangerous post instead of
working for God in his homeland, a missionary objectively makes a
more perfect choice. All other things being equal, a martyr dies
more perfectly than the saint who dies a natural death. In each of
these cases a state of life or a certain action does not become
imperfect merely because it is less perfect.
In other words, things that are more perfect taken in themselves
and without relation to any certain person ("objectively") represent
the better course to follow. This never means that with regard to
individuals ("subjectively") they must be more perfect; nor does
the fact that a state of life is better, mean that the persons in that
state are better.
Again to take an example, a celibate life embraced for Christ's sake
is more perfect. Yet it definitely is not intended for all mankind,
for Almighty God as Creator willed that the bulk of the human race
should reproduce itself according to His all-wise plan. Anyone who
decided on a priestly career without having the vocation and the
necessary spiritual and intellectual qualities would not only be
making a wrong choice but might even sin gravely by doing so.
Now apply this to your own case. You are married. Marriage has
been instituted by God and has been elevated by Christ to the
dignity of a sacrament. Would God have recommended something
imperfect to the bulk of the human race? Or would Christ have
made a sacrament out of something evil or deficient?
Let it be granted that careers exist in which people can be holier.
But you cannot be holier in such careers. You can best work out
your salvation (and your perfection, as well) in the state of life that
fits your natural talents and your supernatural graces. There is no
ground to harbor an inferiority attitude as if you were in some sort
of tolerated way of living, hardly approved by the Church. Even
religious do not receive a sacrament when they pronounce their
vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. You not only received
the sacrament of Matrimony when you pronounced your marriage
vows, but at the same time you administered it to your spouse at
the moment when you became man and wife. The priest was
merely the authorizing witness.
There are two "social sacraments"--Holy Orders for the government
of the Church, and Matrimony for the holy propagation of
mankind. You have received one of these sacraments. Later we
shall have more to say of the breathtaking dignity of your
marriage in so far as it is a sacrament as well as an act of co-
operation with God's creative plan. For the moment, however,
several pressing difficulties call for a momentary digression.
The questions that always recur center around these: "If
Matrimony is so holy and so extraordinarily sublime, why have we
not been told so? And how can you prove to us that it actually is so
You have been told that Matrimony is holy and sublime; it is the
unchanging doctrine of the Church, preached from its pulpits,
embodied in the liturgy of the Nuptial Mass, necessarily
understood in the administration of the sacrament. But as was said
previously, your environment in the present-day world is
definitely pagan. Pagan ideas infiltrate on all sides. Whether you
like it or not, some of these ideas may have seeped into your way
of thinking. In order to be rid of them you must strive positively
against them, studying carefully just where they go wrong. Pius XI
groups them thus in his encyclical:
The basic mistake of the modern mind is to assert that Matrimony
has not been instituted by God, the Creator of mankind; that it has
not been raised to the dignity of a sacrament by Jesus Christ; that
it is an invention of man. Once such ideas have taken root, there
are others that flow naturally from them. If the correct explanation
of the origin of marriage is discarded, every other explanation
which is offered must of necessity be wrong.
That is why our atheistic neighbors have asserted that marriage is
merely a legitimate means of gratifying a powerful impulse of
nature; or that it is a convenient method of propagating the race,
or even a temporary mating for pleasure's sake. Whatever reason is
given, it directly denies that Matrimony was instituted by God, that
the laws which govern it were laid down by Him and were restated
by Christ, and that those laws are preserved and properly
interpreted by the Church.
What is the truth? These are again the words of Pius XI: "Let it be
repeated as an unchangeable and inviolable fundamental doctrine
that Matrimony was not instituted or restored by man but by God;
not by man were the laws made to strengthen and elevate it but by
God, the Author of nature, and by Christ our Lord by whom nature
was redeemed. Hence, these laws cannot be subject to any human
decree or to any contrary pact even of the spouses.
"By Matrimony the souls of the contracting parties are joined
together and knit more directly and more intimately than are their
bodies. This is accomplished not by any transient affection of
sense or spirit but by a deliberate and firm act of the will. And
from this union of souls, by God's own decree a sacred and
inviolable bond arises."
Such is the law of nature made by God whereby the partnership of
man and woman is hallowed. Husband and wife become co-
operators with God in His very act of creation. The primary
purpose of their union is to propagate human life, and in living
according to that duty they furnish each other with the aid and
love they need.
So, then, even if you were a non-Christian, your union would be
noble. What must it be since it has the added dignity of being a
sacrament! Again let us listen to Pope Pius.
"Christ our Lord by raising the matrimony of His faithful to the
dignity of a true sacrament of the New Law made it a sign and
source of that special internal grace by which it perfects natural
love, confirms an indissoluble union, and sanctifies both man and
wife.... Since the valid matrimonial consent among the faithful was
constituted by Christ as a sign of grace, the sacramental nature is
so intimately bound up with Christian wedlock that there can be
no true marriage between baptized persons without its being by
that very fact a sacrament."
Unfortunately, the word "sacrament" is used so often among
Catholics that for many of them it has lost much of its meaning.
They remember from their catechism days the definition that it is
"a visible sign of invisible grace"; but other than that, the matter is
shrouded in the haziness that poll-parrot repetition of words too
often induces. Hence, we shall devote the remainder of this
chapter to explain the deep meaning of marriage as a sacrament.
We must begin at the very beginning--God's creation of Adam and
Eve. At that time God bestowed on our first parents all that
constitutes human nature. He also raised them higher. He elevated
them, as it were, into the realm of His own life, and by a free act of
generosity (altogether unmerited on the part of Adam and Eve) He
granted them a participation in the eternal life whereby He knows
Himself as the all-perfect infinite Good. While Adam and Eve were
living on earth, they became participators in God's life by
sanctifying grace, and because of this making-holy gift (for that is
exactly what "sanctifying grace" means) they were given a right to
see God face to face for all eternity, to enjoy Him thus forever. Yet
it must be kept in mind always that this reward was over and
above the happiness they would have had if as ordinary man and
woman they had sinlessly passed on into eternity without the
elevation to the supernatural order. In such a case they would not
have shared in the life of God--the "supernatural life"--but would
have had only a far inferior happiness called natural beatitude.
God set down one condition when He conferred the gift on Adam
and through him on the human race. If Adam was faithful in his
obedience, if he gave his Creator the reverence and obedience due
Him, then the inheritance of sanctifying grace--this extra gift over
and above nature--would automatically pass on to Adam's
descendants. If Adam disobeyed, the gift would be lost. To Adam
as representative of the whole human race was given the power to
decide the disposal of God's munificent largesse.
Adam sinned deliberately and thereby committed a grievous sin.
Its effects have come down to each of his descendants as original
sin. Instead of being born with sanctifying grace, they come into
the world destitute of the "making-holy gift above nature" which
they should have had as children of Adam. This is what is meant
by original sin; it has none of the malice of actual sin. It is,
nonetheless, an obstacle which, unless removed in each instance,
deprives Adam's children of the life of adopted sons of God.
Another digression is almost imperative at this point to correct a
somewhat common misunderstanding about the sin of Adam. The
modern godless stage and screen often insinuate that the first sin
of Adam and Eve consisted in sexual intercourse. As a result of
such statements, not only is occasion afforded to ridicule slyly the
most intimate and sacred relationships of married life, but the
impression is left with many decent people that perhaps marriage
was frowned upon by God at the beginning of time.
What is the truth? Adam committed a sin of disobedience. He ate
of the forbidden tree. More precisely in what he disobeyed we do
not know. At the time he fell, he was fully aware of the
grievousness of his sin, and he was completely free to make the
choice between good and evil. Of all this we are certain. We can be
almost equally certain that the sin was not one related to sex.
Adam and Eve were man and wife. How could the relations of
married love have been forbidden them? God had enjoined on
them the special command, "Increase and multiply" (Genesis 1:28).
His approbation of marriage was more than sufficient by the very
fact that He had instituted it. Moreover, even after the Fall the
blessings of marriage remained in the world despite the fact that
by Adam's sin other blessings had been lost. The Church explicitly
calls this to our attention in the blessing of the Nuptial Mass. when
the priest invokes God "by whom woman is joined to man, and by
whom that fellowship which Thou didst ordain from the beginning
is endowed with a blessing that alone was not taken away by the
punishment for the first sin."
At any rate Adam sinned, and by sinning he and the whole human
race lost the free supernatural inheritance of sanctifying grace
which Adam was to have passed on to his children. Again God in
His mercy freely helped mankind. He promised a Redeemer--one
who would possess human nature and thereby be a member of the
race for whose sin He must atone, yet one who would also have the
divine nature so that His atonement would be worthy to repair the
insult given by sin to the divine majesty of God. This God-man was
Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, who took on
our human nature and who became one with us in all things, sin
alone excepted. The explanation of how this could occur is hidden
in the mystery of the Incarnation and of the Blessed Trinity. The
fact is that it did occur.
By redeeming us Christ again obtained sanctifying grace for the
human race, but the case was now somewhat different. If Adam
had not sinned, sanctifying grace would have been transmitted
together with natural generation, and husband and wife by
begetting children in the natural order would also have begotten
them in the supernatural order, in sanctifying grace! But because
Adam sinned, Christ as the second Adam had to supply a remedy.
He provided new means of obtaining supernatural life--the
It is through the sacraments that the making-holy gift is again
conferred, for each of the sacraments is a special channel of
sanctifying grace. In Baptism the soul is born into the supernatural
life. In Confirmation it is given the strength to profess the faith.
Holy Eucharist, the sacrament of the very body and blood of Jesus,
nourishes the spiritual life in the same way as natural food
nourishes bodily life. Penance restores sanctifying grace if it has
been lost by serious sin, and Extreme Unction is at hand to help
the soul conquer the difficulties and temptations that beset it at
the moment of death. Extreme Unction also has as its purpose the
healing of the body if such be for the good of the soul.
The two social sacraments, as we mentioned earlier, are Holy
Orders and Matrimony. Holy Orders gives spiritual powers for the
government and sanctification of the members of Christ's Church.
Matrimony elevates the naturally noble union of husband and wife,
who in their state of cooperating with the Creator bring forth His
creatures, potential heirs of heaven.
In other words, Christ restored the essentials of what Adam lost,
namely, sanctifying grace. And the means by which sanctifying
grace is channeled to each man and woman are the sacraments
just described. Matrimony is one of those channels.
In the case of Matrimony the bride and groom administer the
sacrament to each other, for the essence of the sacrament lies in
the contract into which the parties enter, one with the other. Father
LeBuffe points out cogently what this means in its fullness: In
every Christian marriage the groom's first gift to his wife is an
increase of sanctifying grace, and the bride's first gift to her
husband is also an increase of sanctifying grace! Each gives to the
other the right to a fuller share in the ineffable happiness of the
eternal life of God Himself.
Yet even all this does not exhaust the list of benefits which
Matrimony confers. The sacrament does not cease with the
moment in which it is received. Rather, in addition to the
sanctifying grace it bestows at that time, it grants each of the
contracting parties the right to "actual graces," those special helps
God will give as and when they are needed in order that husband
and wife can carry out perfectly the duties of their state of life.
The seeds of these graces, however, must be cultivated by way of
prayer and desire. They come from God as the Holy Spirit will and
the recipient co-operates. We shall later enumerate these lifelong
helps in more detail.
Even if Matrimony were not a sacrament (as among non-
Christians), it would still be "a lasting union between one man and
one woman for the purpose of bringing children into the world and
rearing them, a union in which husband and wife bestow and
receive mutual love and help." But since Christ elevated this
natural union into the supernatural order and designated it as a
sign and means of obtaining grace, its purpose is made even
As the Council of Trent tells us, "He who instituted and perfected
the venerable sacraments, Christ Himself, merited for us by His
Passion the grace which is to make perfect that natural love, is to
strengthen its indissoluble unity, and is to make holy the married
couple." This same love of man and wife, hallowed by
supernatural grace, unites them so closely that Christ has adopted
it as a symbol of His love for the Church.
In St. Paul's words, "Husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved
the Church and delivered himself up for her.... Even thus ought
husbands also to love their wives as their own bodies. He who
loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh;
on the contrary, he nourishes and cherishes it as Christ also does
the Church (because we are members of his body, made from his
flesh and from his bones). `For this reason a man shall leave his
father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and the two shall
become one flesh.' This is a great mystery--I mean in reference to
Christ and to the Church" (Eph. 5:25-32). The sacramental union of
husband and wife is so holy and so intimate that it symbolizes the
union of Jesus with the Church He founded to bring all men to
Equally consoling and inspiring is the knowledge of the actual
graces God bestows on all who are linked by the sacrament. The
divine generosity is so munificent that God binds Himself to assist
these couples not only as long as they live and their marriage
endures, but even as long as there is need for help in the rearing
of their children if one of the parties should die.
Precisely what are these helps? To paraphrase again Father
LeBuffe's summation, these are graces:
1. to carry out God's law regarding the conception and birth of
2. to enjoy and to make holy the pleasures of married life (which
were created by God to soften its difficulties and to unite husband
and wife more closely);
3. to carry the burdens of married life in a holy way;
4. to cherish each other and to grow in selfless love for each other,
bearing with the inevitable defects that exist in every human
5. to bring up children properly, training them for a good and
useful life on earth that will be a prelude to their supernatural life
Such is the state of Matrimony. Can Christian marriage, then, be
otherwise than a holy state, to be reverenced and loved, with
fidelity to the laws God has laid down for it?
For the ideal union in love of husband for wife and wife for
husband, God's examples are before you--Joseph and Mary. Your
marriage is something to be appreciated ever more deeply. From
time to time meditate on its precious character, as, for example, is
suggested in the following indulgenced prayer to the Sacred Heart
of Jesus for husband and wife to say in their own behalf. We can
summarize the spirit of Christian married life no better than in
"O most Sacred Heart of Jesus, King and center of all hearts, dwell
in our hearts and be our King; grant us by Your grace to love each
other truly and chastely, even as You have loved Your spotless
Bride, the Church, and have given Yourself up for her.
"Bestow upon us that mutual love and Christian forbearance which
are so highly acceptable in Your sight, and a mutual patience in
bearing each other's defects; for we are certain that no living
creature is free from them. Do not permit even the slightest defect
to mar that full and gentle harmony of spirit, the foundation of the
mutual assistance in the many and varied hardships of life, that is
the end for which woman was created and united inseparably to
** "O Lord God, grant that between us there may reign a perpetual
holy rivalry toward a life perfectly Christian, by virtue of which
there may shine forth more and more clearly the divine image of
Your mystic union with Your Holy Church, as You have deigned to
imprint it upon us on the auspicious day of our being made one.
"Grant, we beseech You, that our good example of Christian living
may serve as a powerful inspiration to our children to conform
their own lives to Your holy law; and finally, after this exile may
we ascend into heaven, where by the help of Your grace, for which
we earnestly pray, we may merit to be joined with our children
forever and praise and bless You through everlasting ages, Amen."
**If there are no children, the prayer from this point reads: "O Lord
God, grant that between us there may reign a perpetual holy
rivalry toward a life perfectly Christian, by virtue of which there
may shine forth more and more clearly the divine image of Your
mystic union with Your Holy Church, as You have deigned to
imprint it upon us on the auspicious day of our being made one,
and so living, may both of us ascend into heaven, and merit to
praise You and bless You forever. Amen." (300 days' indulgence, S.
Paen. Ap., 11 Dec. 1923; 25 Nov. 1936.)
1. LeBuff, S.J., Francis P., "Let's Look At Sanctifying Grace," pamplet
(St. Louis: The Queen's Work, 1944), p. 45.
2. Session 24.
CHAPTER FOUR: "A CHILD IS BORN TO US"
"NOW it came to pass in those days that there went forth a decree
from Caesar Augustus that a census of the whole world should be
taken. This first census took place while Cyrinus was governor of
Syria" (Luke 2:1-2).
What were "those days"? Since the greatest event in the history of
the world was about to be described by St. Luke, the divinely
inspired historian was very careful to give us the general period in
which it occurred. Nonetheless, the exact year is problematical.
For us to say that Jesus was born in A.D. 1 would be an easy
matter. The facts do not permit so simple a solution.
The early Church counted the years from the persecution of the
Emperor Diocletian (A.D. 285-305), or used the Roman system,
"A.U.C."--ab urbe condita, "from the founding of the city of Rome."
Our present method of basing the calendar on the year of Christ's
birth was not introduced until the middle of the sixth century, and
even then its starting point was reckoned erroneously.
In detail this is how it happened. Some time before 544, a Roman
abbot, Dionysius Exiguus, conceived the plan of making the
Nativity the focal point of every date. Dionysius erred in his
computation, and to this day no one has been able to determine
the exact extent of his mistake! That is why we do not know the
precise year in which Christ was born. Although estimates have
ranged all the way from 22 B.C. to A.D. 9, the evidence points to 5,
6, or best of all, 7 B.C. This date is obtained by correlating St.
Luke's account, Roman and Jewish history, and archeological
Since Augustus Caesar ordered a census of his empire in 8 B.C., we
can be certain that the birth of Christ occurred soon thereafter.
The Cyrinus mentioned by St. Luke was not, it is true, governor of
Syria at the time, but he did act then as the military officer in
charge of the census. St. Luke's language in the original Greek
does not have to be translated, "Cyrinus was governor," but can
simply mean, "Cyrinus was in charge of Syria."
Luke continues: "And all were going, each to his own town, to
register. And Joseph also went from Galilee out of the town of
Nazareth into Judea to the town of David which is called
Bethlehem--because he was of the house and family of David--to
register, together with Mary his espoused wife, who was with child"
As was noted in an earlier chapter, Joseph may have used the
census as a pretext to take Mary from Nazareth in order to protect
her honor and that of Jesus. The fact that he was obliged to
register at Bethlehem indicates that in all likelihood he owned
property there. For all we know, Bethlehem may have been his
birthplace just as Mary's seems to have been at Nazareth.
Bethlehem was about 80 miles south of Nazareth. At this period it
was a hamlet with a population of no more than 2000 souls. About
three days were required to complete the trip. Judging from the
ordinary modes of travel of common folk in Palestine, Mary rode
on an ass while Joseph walked alongside, leading the animal. They
probably had no servant. Their road first descended into the Plain
of Esdraelon, then began to rise more and more, passing through
frequent towns that alternated with farm country. Finally, about
five or six miles south of Jerusalem the two travelers reached their
It should be noted carefully that St. Luke does not say that Christ
was born immediately after the journey from Nazareth. "It came to
pass while they were there that the days for her to be delivered
were fulfilled" (2:6). Luke seems to suggest that Joseph and Mary
lived at Bethlehem for some time before the Nativity. According to
the computation we are following, Joseph married Our Lady after
her pregnancy was four months advanced. This would mean that
the stay at Bethlehem could have been of any length up to five
months. Against this theory, age-old legends are responsible for
the idea in our popular Christmas story that Jesus came into the
world as soon as Mary reached Bethlehem. Up to the present time
nothing certain can be established to settle the question.
The Church in its position as divinely appointed guardian of faith
and morals has always taught and now solemnly teaches that Jesus
was born miraculously of Mary so that the blessed Mother of God
was ever virgin--before, during, and after the Nativity. This is
called the Virgin Birth. Outside the Church it is ridiculed and
misunderstood by many who think it synonymous with the
Immaculate Conception (Mary's freedom from original sin). Yet the
fact remains that the doctrine of the Virgin Birth was held from the
very earliest days of Christianity; and to deny it now would be
tantamount to denying the Church's mission as God's mouthpiece
on earth. If Christ could pass through material objects (as He
passed through the doors of the Upper Room after His
Resurrection), why could He not pass through the body of His
mother, leaving her virginal membranes intact?
Moreover, since Mary had been preserved from original sin by
reason of her Immaculate Conception in the womb of her mother,
she was free of the penalty Eve transmitted to every daughter of
Adam. Mary bore Jesus without travail.
"And she wrapped him in swaddling clothes" (Luke 2:17). There are
several interesting features about the swaddling clothes in which
Jesus was given His first protection from cold and dampness. The
custom of using swaddling bands had first been introduced while
the Israelites were a wandering desert people. The binding was
intended to provide warmth for the newly born infant as well as
protection for his weak spine and soft bone structure.
A square piece of material formed the swaddling cloth proper,
across the diagonal of which the babe was laid. Then the corners
were tucked together, leaving only the infant's head exposed.
Finally, two or three strips of cloth were wrapped around this tiny
bundle, and the baby was thus snugly enclosed in a firm, warm,
and comfortable sleeping bag. It took a genius in words like
Cardinal Newman to capture the overwhelming paradox of this
appealing scene when he described the lovable young virgin
mother as tucking in "Omnipotence in bonds."
"And she laid him in a manger" (Luke 2:7). St. Luke implicitly tells
us that the Nativity occurred in a stable. The manger used in
Bethlehem was a trough hewn out of wood or scooped out of the
soft limestone which abounds in the Holy Land. Jesus probably
rested on a bed of wheat or barley straw, for hay as we understand
it was not made in Palestine.
The inn in which "there was no room for them" (Luke 2:7) was no
more than a small caravansary or khan, inasmuch as Bethlehem
was only an insignificant hamlet. Vastly dissimilar to the hotels to
which we are accustomed, the khan consisted of a courtyard for
the animals, surrounded by alcoves in which the travelers spent
the night. The entire enclosure was made safe against robbers by a
high fence and by a gate that was strongly barred at nightfall.
Mary and Joseph were not turned away by a hardhearted
innkeeper, greedy for money from richer patrons. The popular
misconception arose from the medieval legends and miracle plays
of Europe. It contradicts the traditional hospitality found all over
the East. The real reason was simply the fact that other travelers
were living in the inn. Over and above this circumstance, a lodging
so public was no place for Mary, whose time was fast approaching.
Joseph therefore led his wife to the only refuge available--a cave
hollowed into the rock and used as a shelter by the shepherds of
the vicinity. Such grottoes have served and still serve as a
common place of refuge for man and beast on rainy chilly nights.
Were an ox and ass present at the side of Mary when she brought
forth the Saviour of the world? We have no evidence. The stories of
the ox and ass grew out of a pious application of a text from the
prophet Isaias, "The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's
crib" (Isa. 1:3). It would seem more likely that if any animals at all
were in the cave, they should have been sheep that belonged to the
Yet the one great question remains unanswered. What
circumstances prevented Joseph, the official protector of Jesus
and Mary, from obtaining adequate shelter for his dear charges
when they needed it so badly? Many theories have been
propounded by expert scholars who have spent long years in
studying every possible clue ranging from the climate of the Holy
Land to the minutest detail of the text of Holy Scripture. Perhaps
Joseph tried to get shelter better than the temporary home he
acquired when he first came to Bethlehem; we do not know. But
this seems certain: Mary's time was suddenly shortened by the
direct providence of God so that Jesus Christ, the Son of Man, by
His own choice would come into the world in poor circumstances,
a lesson of detachment to all men of all time.
Evidently Jesus was born during the night, for "there were
shepherds in the same district living in the fields and keeping
watch over their flock by night" (Luke 2:8). The weather may have
been cool and raw, but not cold or snowy. Otherwise, the
shepherds would have taken their flocks to some cave or other
enclosure for shelter. Although tradition disagrees on the exact
date of the first Christmas, it is rather uniform in holding that our
Lord came into the world during the rainy or winter season--that is,
some time between November and April.
"And behold, an angel of the Lord stood by [the shepherds], and
said to them, `Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good news
of great joy which shall be to all the people; for there has been
born to you today in the town of David a Saviour who is Christ the
Lord. And this shall be a sign to you: you will find an infant
wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.' And
suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host
praising God and saying, `Glory to God in the highest, and peace
on earth among men of good will.' And it came to pass, when the
angels had departed from them into heaven, that the shepherds
were saying to one another, `Let us go over to Bethlehem and see
this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known
to us.' So they went with haste, and they found Mary and Joseph,
and the Babe lying in the manger. And when they had seen, they
understood what had been told them concerning this Child. And all
who heard marveled at the things told them by the shepherds. But
Mary kept in mind all these words, pondering them in her heart.
And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all
that they had heard and seen, even as it was spoken to them" (Luke
Thus does St. Luke draw the curtain over the Christmas scene he
has described in inimitable words--a scene whose richness
painters and poets and preachers have never been able to exhaust.
It is the first appearance of the Holy Family before men: "Mary and
Joseph, and the Babe lying in the manger." Mutual love shines
forth in the faces of this earthly trinity: loving respect in the face
of Joseph, loving adoration in the face of Mary, loving generosity
in the face of the Eternal God with us. Joseph and Mary are, as it
were, the mediators through whom the shepherds come to Jesus. In
our own day and forever, they are the mediators through whom we,
too, come to Jesus.
The all-pervading indefinable sense of deep peace that belongs to
Christmas has come down to us through the ages. If we carefully
search for the cause of this Christmas peace, we find that it lies in
the unshakable calm brought forth by security. And if we search
further for the cause of this security, we find it in the knowledge
that God is with us.
"God with us!" We are children spoiled by twenty centuries of
Christianity--spoiled because we have God with us and we do not
appreciate the fact. We have had no experience of bleak paganism
where in early youth our star-seeking ideals would be thrown down
again and again as they sought to turn a rebellious nature to obey
a God they were not favored to know as we know Him. We have had
no experience (as had the pagans of old) of trying to drown all
those ideals in an ocean of sinful pleasure, yet finding their
craving for the good and pure and the noble and unselfish still
unsatisfied. We cannot appreciate the pagans' despair at having no
one to turn to--absolutely no one; because deep down in our hearts
we know that even if all humans fail us, if we ourselves fail Jesus
Christ, He can never and will never desert us.
Yes, the source of our Christmas peace is the realization that God
is with us. And not merely God in heaven spiritually and invisibly
at our side, but God in heaven come down to earth, clothed in flesh
and bone as we are, like to us in all things, sin alone excepted.
The two thousand years that separate us from the midnight of the
Nativity, vanish, and we kneel beside Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, and
we see that we are not in the past. It is a present moment that can
never become part of the past. Even if Jesus had not perpetuated
His bodily presence on earth by means of the Blessed Sacrament of
His love, this one moment at the cave in Bethlehem, when the
earth first saw its Saviour, would be so all-inclusive that the
passing of time could never dim its perpetual newness. The fact
that Almighty God should take on our human nature and walk
among us is too stupendous to he held by one moment or even by
all the moments of time. Because Christ was with us once, He is
with us always. The moment when the Infinite came into the realm
of time becomes, as it were, eternal.
The lesson of the Nativity, then, is the bodily presence of God with
us. The Preface for the Masses of Christmas Day rightly phrases
this lesson as a stirring keynote. "Through the mystery of the
Incarnate Word, the new light of God's glory has shone on the eyes
of our mind, so that while we look upon God present to our eyes,
through Him we may be drawn to the love of the invisible." From
this point, "while we look upon God present to our eyes," we must
rely on our faith in order that "we may be drawn to the love of the
But what is our faith? It is the "substance of things to be hoped for,
the evidence of things that are not seen" (Heb. 11:2). It is our
belief in the word of God that what He tells us is true, despite the
lack of evidence or even the apparently contrary evidence on the
part of our senses.
Here in the cave at Bethlehem we see a newborn infant, his young
mother, and her stalwart husband. Our faith tells us that the Infant
is God Himself, become man without ceasing to be God; the
mother is the person most exquisitely fashioned by the Lord
Almighty; and the husband is the foster father closest to the Virgin
and her Child in awesome holiness.
Before this Child came on earth, there was the law of God to be
fulfilled. Like all laws it tended to be a "thing invisible," a rule
hard to follow because unseen. But now that Christ is among us,
the law takes shape before our eyes. We behold a Person now, no
longer an abstract mandate. We see Him carry out the two great
commandments of the love of God and the love of our fellow men--
"things invisible"--to which we are drawn now because we look
upon them concretized in "God present to our eyes." By the fact
that Christ has come down to our earth, we are provided not only
with an exemplar to show us how to live as we ought, but also we
are fired by enthusiasm and love of Him to want to live as we
Faith must enter into your daily life if you wish to live holily and
happily. For instance, can you behold with your own eyes the
sanctity and sacramental nature of Christian marriage? Hardly; yet
your faith tells you that it is so.
Suppose that a serious problem turns up in your married life. It
might be any of the thousand-and-one problems that can and do
arise--misunderstanding, illness, financial distress, bereavement,
difficulties with the children. Your faith tells you that because of
the sacrament you received at the moment of your marriage, you
have a right to receive from God those special benefactions, the
actual graces, for carrying out the obligations of your married life.
Can you believe this in a moment of trial? Can you bravely and
generously go forward and attempt to solve your problems with a
confident heart, serene in the knowledge that God has given you
the grace to do so? You require faith, and faith requires a
submission of your intellect to God's promises.
For that faith look at Jesus in the manger at Bethlehem. It is this
very same Infant who in the years of His manhood will exalt your
marriage to the height of a sacrament. The Christ is not a god
dwelling far in the starry reaches of heaven; He came into your
midst, a Babe subject to all the discomforts and helplessness
natural to His state. With your own eyes you can see that He knows
what you are describing when you tell Him of your troubles, for He
Himself has shared our life on this earth. He is sympathetic to
your needs, and His promises are not deceptions but come from
the depths of His Sacred Heart that beats like your very own.
It is true that if Jesus had not come down to earth, we still would
have had the consciousness of a loving Father in heaven who
tenderly remembers His children on earth. It is also true that we
need faith to see in the Babe the infinite God of love and majesty.
But the lesson of Bethlehem lies in this extra help to our faith, this
knowledge of Christ's personal presence among us--again to repeat
from the Preface of the Christmas Masses--"that while we look
upon God present to our eyes, we may be drawn to the love of
From this you can understand why the Church uses this same
Preface for Christmas in its Masses of the Blessed Sacrament.
Christ's body on earth at Bethlehem was the same body which is
now on earth in our tabernacles all over the world. The only
difference is that now He is veiled beneath the species of bread
and wine. The Blessed Sacrament is the continuation of Christmas;
we cannot think of Christ's first personal visit two thousand years
ago without instinctively thinking of His constant visit at every
present moment. We owe the Blessed Sacrament to Bethlehem.
Each recurring Christmas Day should refresh in your mind the
magnificent import of the bodily presence of God among us. As
you receive Holy Communion on each occasion, the story of
Bethlehem is being renewed and continued in your heart, for the
cave was the first tabernacle and the manger was the first
ciborium. You have the opportunity of "wrapping the Child in
swaddling clothes and laying Him in the manger" of your own
heart every day if you wish.
In the Blessed Sacrament you will find the greatest, the most
tangible help and inspiration for your family life. If you and your
husband or wife can make it a practice to receive Holy Communion
together, your union will be all the deeper because it is rooted all
the more deeply in the love of Christ. There can be no doubt that
the frequent reception of Holy Communion by husband and wife
does infallibly make their marriage holier and happier.
It is hardly possible to speak satisfactorily of the Blessed
Sacrament. The subject is too tremendous to do it justice. Just as
the moment of the Incarnation could not hold its awesome reality
for itself as the one moment when the Infinite took on the limits of
time, so, too, the words that try to portray the quiet majesty of
Christ's reign among us in the Tabernacle cannot convey their full
message of truth. Jesus Christ, God and man, is present with His
glorified living body under the appearance of bread and wine in
the Blessed Sacrament. What then? The action of the frequent
communicant is the only reasonable action, and the answer of the
father of the possessed boy is the only reasonable answer: "Lord, I
believe, help thou my unbelief!" (Mark 9:23.)
Every time we look on the mystery of the Nativity at Bethlehem, a
little deeper sense of its meaning penetrates our souls. Sometimes
for a few fleeting moments we feel that we can almost grasp the
full realization of what it means to have God as man on this earth.
The extension of Christ's life in the Blessed Sacrament adds to this
realization still another note: "God as man is on this earth now, as
my closest, dearest Friend, in whose love I can rest my love of my
husband or wife, and in whom we two are united in the ideal of the
selfless love toward which we are striving."
Do not be deceived by the fallacy that because of unworthiness
you ought not approach Christ closely, receiving Holy Communion
often. Who would be so proud as to imply that anyone could
become fully worthy? To receive Communion only two things are
necessary and sufficient: the state of grace and the proper
disposition. The proper disposition simply consists in approaching
the Holy Table for the good which the Eucharist will effect in your
soul and body, not for public show or merely to please someone
else. The results will be a closer union of love with Christ, the
growth of every virtue in your soul, the blotting out of venial sin,
strength against mortal sin, and powerful assistance to die in the
peace of the Lord when your time comes.
All these considerations on the meaning of the Nativity and the
Blessed Sacrament have grown out of our looking more or less at
the Infant Jesus. There were two other people next to Him whom
we look at now--the virgin mother and the foster father. Their
radiant love is all directed toward the Babe in the manger, and
because it is directed toward the Babe, it also goes through Him
from husband to wife and from wife to husband in the thrill of
ecstasy that takes hold of the two greatest saints as they look on
their God, their Son. Again must we stress this great love of Joseph
and Mary for each other as the model for every husband and wife.
It is here at Bethlehem while we watch them together at the crib
that we can discuss frankly and settle finally a point that
sometimes bothers Catholics when they pray to Joseph instead of
Mary or to Mary instead of Joseph. In venerating one they
experience a sort of uneasy feeling that perhaps they are taking
honor from the other. The same type of feeling can come to
converts who have not yet developed the instinctive habit of
praying to Mary, while realizing nevertheless that such an action
not only does not derogate from God's rights but is highly pleasing
Cardinal Newman has said that ten thousand difficulties do not
make one doubt. So in this case. There is no doubt that devotion to
St. Joseph honors Mary and gives glory to God, and there is no
doubt that Joseph more than an other saint wishes Mary to be
honored above all mere creatures including himself. There is
merely the difficulty that we find it hard to comprehend the
complete selflessness of the husband and the wife, and their total
devotion to one cause alone: the will of God. We fear that one
would be jealous of the other! At any rate, in examining their love
more closely as we are doing, another aspect of ideal family love
will be brought into focus.
In our limited human experience we rarely if ever succeed in
erasing absolutely every trace of selfishness in dealing with even
our nearest and dearest; but in the case of Joseph and Mary the
two know that their mutual glorification redounds to the praise of
their Creator. Mary is His choicest handiwork as the most
delicately beautiful person God made, conceived without stain of
original sin. All her dignity arises out of the fact that she is the
Mother of God, for she it was who brought this Infant Jesus into
the world here at Bethlehem.
In the same way honor paid to St. Joseph is honor paid to Mary,
and through Mary, to God. The dignity of St. Joseph ultimately
stems from the fact that he is the virginal husband of the Mother
of God. Because of his marriage to Our Lady he possesses the
rights of a father over this Jesus her Son, who lies in the manger
before them. Had he not been Mary's husband, he would have been
merely the guardian of Christ. He would not have had so intimate a
share, as theologians tell us, in cooperating in Christ's work of
redemption by educating and protecting Him during His childhood
until He was ready to begin His public life.
Joseph and Mary realize all this as they kneel beside Jesus. Their
humility does not deny the existence in themselves of the great
gifts which Almighty God has bestowed on them. They understand
the awesome heights of the dignity that belongs to their privileged
positions, but they understand at the same time that all credit for
their holiness must be given to the Infant they are serving, and to
the workings of His grace in them. Their free will co-operated with
Him in every detail; that, too, they realize. And while they see
themselves rewarded for their fidelity by being the two chosen
lovers to welcome Christ into the world, they see manifested in
themselves God's justice and mercy and faithfulness to His
If only we could grasp the depth of the love of Joseph for Mary and
of Mary for Joseph as they adore their Son together! Next to God, or
rather in God Himself, they bear an all-generous affection toward
each other that could exist only in the husband and wife of the
Mary is not any less human because she is more holy. She looks at
the Child and looks at His foster father, who is to guard Him (and
act as His father) for possibly the next thirty years. She knows
Joseph's fidelity and generosity and bravery. And she has another
reason for her affection. She sees in him the tremendous nearness
to God that made him worthy to be called the father of Christ. She
wishes him to be honored for all he has done and will do for the
And on Joseph's part, he loves Mary as no one except the Infant
before them has ever done or can do. No angel or saint can be
closer to Mary than her husband. He sees in her the sanctity that
made her worthy to become the habitation of the Son of God. Since
she is the mediatrix of all graces, Joseph goes to Jesus through
Yes, here in Bethlehem for the first time we behold the Holy
Family, united on earth in that love and mutual confidence which
continues to be our model here while they are united in even
closer intimacy in heaven. We simply cannot honor St. Joseph
without implicitly paying honor to Mary; and we cannot pay
homage to Our Lady without honoring her Son, who is God, "to
whom be all glory forever."
We must leave the manger now and follow the further progress of
the story of the Holy Family. But the manger will be our heart, and
the Infant will lie there often as we receive Him again and again in
the sacrament of His love. Joseph and Mary will help us welcome
Him each time as they welcomed Him for that wonderful first time
CHAPTER FIVE: THE SACRIFICE BEGINS
"AND when eight days were fulfilled for his circumcision, his name
was called Jesus, the name given him by the angel before he was
conceived in the womb" (Luke 2:21). "And [Joseph] called his name
Jesus" (Matt. 1:25).
This was the day on which Jesus received "the name that is above
every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend
of those in heaven, on earth, and under the earth, and every
tongue should confess that the Lord Jesus Christ is in the glory of
God the Father" (Phil. 2:9-11). The rite of circumcision was the sign
of the "testament"--the covenant or agreement--between God and
Abraham and the sons of Abraham.
Jesus subjected Himself to the law of circumcision in order to
show that He had taken on our human nature in all its
completeness. The rite signified the consecration of its subject to
God. This held true for every Hebrew male child. How much more
truly did it not apply to Jesus, who although the Second Person of
the Blessed Trinity in His divine nature, consecrated His human
nature to the service and glory of His Godhead!
"And when the days of Mary's purification were fulfilled, according
to the Law of Moses, they took him up to Jerusalem to present him
to the Lord" (Luke 2:22). In this episode which occurred forty days
after the Nativity many people are puzzled by the "purification" to
which Mary subjected herself. Did it mean that motherhood among
the Jews was considered something impure?
The answer to this question depends on what we mean by the word
"impure." The law of purification did not imply that mothers
contracted a moral blemish by bearing children. Rather, it referred
to a legal "uncleanness" the precise nature of which is not known.
After the birth of a son a period of forty days had to elapse before
the mother could touch hallowed things and enter the sanctuary of
the Temple. But this did not mean that motherhood was something
sinful or less perfect. Actually, children were deemed signs of
God's favor, and a childless wife considered herself cursed. The
law of purification of mothers probably had its origin, as did so
many of the old laws of the Hebrews, in sanitary considerations.
The ceremony itself consisted of offering a pair of turtledoves or
two young pigeons for sacrifice. Thereupon the legal blemish was
One of the impressive rites of the Church which recalls Mary's visit
to the Temple is the churching of women after they have given
birth. In the minds of many there unfortunately exists a more or
less hazy misunderstanding of the true meaning of the ceremony.
Churching does not imply that women because of childbirth incur
some sort of stain which must be duly removed by the prayers of
the priest. It is a blessing which the Church confers on the mother;
and the mother in her turn offers thanks to God for her safe
The ceremony is made up of a psalm of gratitude and praise, a
blessing of the mother with holy water, and various prayers
suitable for the occasion. As part of the rite, the priest places the
end of his stole into the mother's hand and leads her into the
church, saying, "Enter into the temple of God, adore the Son of the
Blessed Virgin Mary, who has given you the fruitfulness of
offspring." Then he recites a special prayer as follows: "Almighty
everlasting God, who through the delivery of the Blessed Virgin
Mary has turned into joy the pains of the faithful in childbirth,
look graciously upon this Thy handmaid coming in gladness to
Thy holy temple to offer thanksgiving: and grant that after this life
by the merits and intercession of the same blessed Mary, she may
merit to arrive together with her offspring at the joys of
everlasting happiness, through Christ our Lord. Amen." And to the
mother the priest says, "May the peace and blessing of Almighty
God, the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, descend upon you
and remain always, Amen."
Since Mary had given birth to Jesus miraculously, she undoubtedly
was not bound in conscience to observe the law of purification. In
the same way Jesus was not obliged to be presented to the Lord,
for He was already God by nature. The custom of offering the first-
born to God hearkened back to the Israelites' release from
captivity in Egypt. There, God struck dead all the first-born of the
Egyptians, sparing, of course, the Hebrew children. In
remembrance of this favor, first-born males were consecrated to
God and then redeemed by the payment of a token price--five
shekels, about $3.20. There is wonderful meaning in this scene of
Mary and Joseph redeeming the Redeemer. Jesus submitted to the
rite of Presentation in order to show us once again how truly and
fully He became one of us.
When Mary and Joseph gave Jesus to the priest in the Temple to be
offered to God, they united in that offering themselves--everything
they were and everything they had. It was the closeness of their
union with Jesus that made them holy; and if their Son in His
human nature was making the oblation of Himself to His heavenly
Father, these two beloved parents were not going to stint the
generosity of their cooperation with Him. They would offer
As Mary and Joseph made their self-consecration, so should we. It
is true that in a very correct sense everything we are and
everything we have belongs already to God. He has given us even
our free will. But in another sense God made us stewards of our
talents, our bodies, our very souls, putting them into our charge to
be cared for and developed so that they might ultimately be fit to
be raised to eternal union with Him. In giving ourselves back to
our Creator, we ask that we be employed according to His holy and
all-good will. It is an offering born of love and gratitude.
Sometimes people are frightened to make such an offering. They
imagine that God will ask them to undergo terrible sufferings, or
that He will take away from them their legitimate pleasures. No,
that is not the sense of self-oblation. It is merely an explicit
method of telling God that you wish His will to be accomplished in
your regard. You already know His will in its general aspects. Its
purpose is one and only one: that you may become holy. The
means to become holy you already possess. If you observe the
commandments, receive the sacraments, and carry out the duties
of your state of life, you are doing God's will. When you make the
offering of yourself, you are saying equivalently that you desire to
fulfill these obligations ever more perfectly and confidently leave
yourself in His hands. Is there anything frightening in that?
In connection with the possible crosses you may fear, never forget
that Almighty God is bound by His justice and by His own promise
to give you all the graces you need to carry out anything He asks
of you. Usually the worst crosses we bear are those we create in
our imagination. And even if some trial we dread does come to us,
it cannot be the agonizing experience we foresaw. The reason
simply is this: at the moment we are called upon to carry the cross,
we have the grace to do so. But at the moment we fear that this or
that cross will come to us, we do not have the grace to bear it. In
other words God has not needlessly given us the strength to carry
a cross which He has not asked us to bear.
Look back on your life and count up some of the benefits you have
received. Creation--redemption--sanctification: the last-named of
these implying that you were baptized in the Church of Christ,
nourished by the sacrament of the Eucharist, restored to peace
with God or increased in that peace by the sacrament of Penance.
Now you are united in another wonderful sacrament, Matrimony, in
a lifelong union of married love. Probably you have or will have
the inestimable blessing of seeing your children and children's
children gather round you. (There are thousands of childless
couples whose greatest cross is the fact that they cannot have
children even though they desire them. They know what such a
blessing would mean to them.)
There is so much, too, in your past life for which you feel grateful.
In the rush of earning a livelihood or caring for the family you
perhaps have been too busy to count up explicitly all these
blessings--special favors from heaven that have been for your
particular benefit. Yes, take the time, carefully itemize the list of
all good things God has bestowed on you, and automatically there
will rise in your heart a deep sense of thanksgiving that impels
you to come to Joseph and Mary and ask them to accept the
offering of yourself, to unite it to their own, and to give it to the
beloved Infant so that it might arise together with the oblation of
Himself to God the Father.
But your offering can be made still more complete. You will
perfect it by including your whole family. Again the method of
making this offering is as easy as it is efficacious. It is the
consecration of the family to the Sacred Heart. Our Lord in His
appearances to St. Margaret Mary promised special blessings to
those families that have thus consecrated themselves: "I will give
them all the graces necessary for their state of life; I will console
them in all their difficulties: I will bless every place where a
picture of My Heart shall be set up and honored; I will be their safe
refuge in life and still more in death."
Preferably this Consecration should be made officially by the
Reverend Pastor or some other priest, but it is sufficient if the
head of the family (or all the members together) recite this
formula recommended and highly indulgenced by the Church.
Preferably, too, the Consecration should be offered before a
picture or statue of the Sacred Heart.
"O Sacred Heart of Jesus, who manifested to Saint Margaret Mary
the desire to reign in Christian families, behold us here today in
order to please You by proclaiming Your kingly rule over our
family. We would live in the future with Your life, we would cause
to flourish in our midst those virtues to which You have promised
peace on earth, we would banish far from us the spirit of the world
which You have cursed. You shall reign in our minds in the
singleness of our faith; and You shall reign in our hearts by the
love with which they will burn for You alone, with a flame kept
alive by the frequent reception of the Holy Eucharist.
"Deign, O divine Heart, to preside over our gatherings, to bless our
spiritual and temporal enterprises, to protect us from trouble, to
sanctify our joys, and to lighten our sufferings. If ever anyone of
us should have so great a misfortune as to displease You, remind
him, O Heart of Jesus, that You are full of goodness and mercy for
the penitent sinner.
"And when the hour of separation strikes and death casts
mourning into the midst of our family, all of us, both those who
pass on and those who remain, shall be submissive to Your eternal
decrees. This will be our consolation, to recall that a day will come
when our entire family, joined in heaven, will be able to sing
forever Your glories and Your mercies.
"May the Immaculate Heart of Mary and the glorious Patriarch Saint
Joseph deign to offer this consecration to You, and to preserve it
in our memory every day of our lives.
"All glory to the Heart of our King and Father, Jesus!" (For
indulgences see No. 655, The Raccolta)
After Joseph and Mary offered Jesus to His Eternal Father, there
occurred that touching scene when the aged Simeon "came by
inspiration of the Spirit into the Temple. And when his parents
brought in the Child Jesus to do for him according to the custom
of the law, he also received him and blessed God, saying, `Now
thou dost dismiss thy servant, O Lord, according to thy word in
peace; because my eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast
prepared before the face of all peoples; a light of revelation to the
Gentiles, and a glory for thy people Israel'" (Luke 2:27-31).
Simeon's canticle expresses so perfectly his joy over a life well
spent that the phrase nunc dimittis (from the Latin, "now Thou dost
dismiss"), has become a part of our language as an expression of
satisfaction and thanksgiving to God at death's approach.
As you read these lines, you probably may think to yourself that
you are far from the moment when you will be called to leave this
world and go to your judgment and reward. Perhaps so; but you
can never forget that the moment is ever advancing. It is at the
same time equally certain and uncertain. There can be no doubt
that it will occur, but just when it will occur is the greatest
question mark in your life and in the life of every other person
now on earth.
You can adopt only one sensible course about the moment of your
death. Live in such a way that no matter how suddenly it comes,
you will always be prepared to say your nunc dimittis with a heart
trusting in the goodness of God, conscious of your lifelong efforts
to serve Him and love Him faithfully.
There are, of course, the usual two extremes, but neither of them is
to be recommended. Some persons avoid the thought of death as if
by forgetting the inevitable, they could stave it off or dodge it
completely. For them the pleasures and parties of their hurried
existence are emphasized out of all proper proportion. These
people cannot bear the thought that one day their life will be over
and they will be face to face with the sole reality that counts for
anything: Did they or did they not save their souls by obeying the
laws of God and of His Church?
So much for the attitude of the sophisticates. At the other extreme
is a smaller group of people who make their mistake in being "too
good." True, there are not many of these, but enough are around us
to serve as a warning to stay out of their class. These are the
worriers who make life miserable for themselves (and incidentally
for others also) by imagining God as some sort of bloodthirsty
tyrant who wields over their puny heads the threat of instant death
and eternal punishment. Fear rules their lives from start to finish--
fear that penetrates their most fundamental relationships with
their Creator as well as their dealings with their fellow men.
What is their mistake? They are concentrating on merely one facet
of God's infinite perfection. They see and hear and think of only
His justice and punishments. They forget that He is all-good, that
the source of all that is tender and affectionate and generous in us
comes from the depths of His eternal love. Probably God in His
goodness will magnanimously take care of them, for they are
erring, as we would say, "in the right direction." Nevertheless,
theirs is a real error, and it is far removed from that spirit of
Simeon's nunc dimittis which we want to develop in ourselves.
The correct attitude brings serenity into our lives, peace in our
dealings with others, and security and deep happiness because of
our relationship to our God. We trust that we are ready at any
moment to go before our Judge, and we do not worry about it. It is
His part to determine when our time is fulfilled, and with His
infinite knowledge and providence He knows what is best for us.
We do not try to fathom the mind of the Almighty, but we do try to
accomplish what we can, to have something to show in our favor
on Judgment Day.
An attitude of this sort can usually be implicit and pervade
everything we do. The thought of death will not spoil our
enjoyment of life if we accept the licit pleasures God has given us
as good things that help us live as humans ought. In such a life we
cherish our husband or wife, we love our children and strive to
fulfill our obligations toward them, we obey the Church in its
position as the divinely appointed and divinely guided teacher of
faith and morals. And in doing this, we are building stone by stone
the tower of confidence on which we can stand when death
approaches. Then will we look back on a life well spent and thank
the dear God for helping us during the time of our pilgrimage.
At that moment, too, God will be bringing us into the place where
the incomplete is made complete, the temporal is changed into the
eternal, and the ties of love which we had on earth are forged into
everlasting bonds of happiness uniting us and our loved ones to
our Creator, our Last End. It is the realization of all this that will
evoke from our lips, "Now Thou dost dismiss Thy servant, O Lord,
But in the Temple at Jerusalem on that day two thousand years
ago, Joseph and Mary were to hear more words from Simeon's lips,
somber words that reminded them all too clearly that their own
mission was just beginning, and that much suffering would be
ahead of them before they could say their own nunc dimittis. "And
Simeon said to Mary his mother, `Behold, this Child is destined for
the fall and the rise of many in Israel, and for a sign that shall be
contradicted. And thy own soul a sword shall pierce, that the
thoughts of many hearts may be revealed" (Luke 2:34-35).
Simeon under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit prophesied Our
Lady's role as the Mother of Sorrows and the Queen of Martyrs.
Even though Mary's suffering was to occur in the future, the
prophecy served to remind her of what was to come, and to
prepare her for the trial which would test the supreme heights of
even her sanctity and generosity.
It is in this light that we should interpret Simeon's prophecy. God
did not cruelly send Our Lady an unnecessary cross. Long before
the angel had asked her if she were willing to become the Mother
of God, Mary knew from the Scriptures that the Messias would be
the Man of Sorrows. When she consented, she realized what she
was accepting. She would be closest to Jesus in everything--closest
in suffering and love as well as in triumph and glory. In His
Passion her sympathy was to be His greatest consolation. By a
triumph of His grace Our Lady's merits, dependent on those of her
Son, were to help restore the fallen human race to the friendship of
God which it had lost when Adam, its head, betrayed his trust.
At the moment of Simeon's prophecy Joseph, too, understood what
the sword of sorrow meant to his wife and what it would mean to
the lovable Babe who had just been offered to His Eternal Father.
The words of Simeon were a sign from heaven that Christ's
oblation had been accepted. And because Joseph was closest to
Mary in holiness, after her he was closest to Jesus in the suffering
that redeemed us.
According to God's plan Joseph was not present during Christ's
Passion and Crucifixion; but like Mary, he knew what the
Scriptures had foretold of the Messias. Because his will was one
with that of Mary and Jesus, Joseph truly sympathized with them
in anticipation (for "sympathy" means "to suffer with") so that he
participated intimately in applying Christ's redemption to
We should be careful to place the proper estimate on the attitude
of the Holy Family. After Simeon's prophecy of the future
martyrdom of suffering, Mary and Joseph did not live a dismal,
foreboding existence in the years of preparing their Child for His
future. Knowing as we do how closely they imitated Jesus, we can
be quite certain of the serenity and happiness in their lives.
Jesus on His part always had before Him the prospect of His
Passion and death, yet He never let it distress Him outwardly until
the night of His agony in Gethsemani. Even then His action was not
one of weakness but was deliberately permitted for our instruction
and consolation. Moreover, He knew the glory of His Resurrection,
and He looked forward to the wonderful joy and peace which He as
the risen Saviour would bring to His friends, His adopted brothers
How could He have appeared to His neighbors of Nazareth as a
normal boy, "the carpenter's son," if His mood had been one of
despondency or never ending seriousness? No doubt He was grave
and dignified in His public life, but His love of little children and
the trusting affection they gave Him in return show that His
demeanor was not overwrought with heavy thoughts of His future.
In the same way, Joseph and Mary were not glum folk but were
accepted by their friends and fellow townsmen as normal,
This proper picture is most important for our purpose. A one-sided
presentation--that the Holy Family exclusively thought of
suffering--would be erroneous. Their life could hardly have been
the model of Catholic family life in all ages if they had permitted
dread anticipation of the future to ruin their happiness constantly.
It is interesting to recall that in Our Lady's Rosary there are only
five Sorrowful Mysteries, but ten that are Joyful and Glorious.
In an earlier chapter we spoke of the essential goodness of human
nature and of everything created. Now, humor, lightheartedness,
and song are creations of God and therefore must be good also.
They have their place (and a very important place it is) in the life
of every individual and family. True joy belongs to Christianity
alone. We see the bleakness of the old pagan religions appearing in
the activities of the gods, who were never pictured as laughing,
but rather engaged in quarrels, jealous rivalry, and Bacchanalian
There is a real need of a sense of humor and what is called
common sense in family life. Undoubtedly, grave situations do
arise at some time or other, but the ordinary husband and wife do
not find their existence marked by constant crises. Rather, their
life flows evenly, happily, and calmly.
In your own case if you were to dwell exclusively on weighty
matters, believing that your religious observance was enhanced in
proportion to your somber moods, you would merely be creating a
useless trial for yourself and the rest of your family. Sadness
cannot come from God but only from the enemy of all that is good.
Idleness is not the devil's single workshop. Depression and
moodiness serve him just as well.
The cheery husband and wife at peace with God enjoy life without
resorting to all sorts of expedients to have "a good time."
Happiness comes to God's friends naturally and that is why we
know that happiness came to Mary and Joseph in abundance. Even
in making the application of the serious lessons in their lives, we
must not infer that they knew nothing of lightheartedness.
Certainly, they drew their example from Him whose spirit would
later animate St. Paul to write, "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I
say, rejoice.... Have no anxiety but in every prayer and
supplication, with thanksgiving let your petitions be made known
to God. And may the peace of God which surpasses all
understanding guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
"For the rest, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever
honorable, whatever just, whatever holy, whatever lovable,
whatever of good repute, if there be any virtue, if anything worthy
of praise, think upon these things.... And the God of peace will be
with you" (Phil. 4:5, 6-9).
CHAPTER SIX: THE MAGI
"NOW when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of
King Herod, behold, there came Magi from the East to Jerusalem,
saying, `Where is the newly born king of the Jews? For we have
seen his star in the East and have come to worship him'" (Matt. 2:1-
Who were the Magi? This is a much-discussed question to which no
certain answer can be given. Probably, however, the "Wise men"
were astrologer-priests of the Zoroastrian religion of Persia.
Western Christianity thinks of them as the "Three Kings" because
the liturgy for the age-old Feast of the Epiphany applies the text of
Psalm 71, "The kings of Tharsis and the islands shall offer
presents; the kings of the Arabians and of Sheba shall bring gifts;
and all kings of the earth shall adore him; all nations of the earth
shall serve him."
When did the Magi come to Bethlehem? Apparently some time had
elapsed after the birth of Christ. Since Herod later massacred "all
the boys in Bethlehem who were two years old or under" (Matt.
2:16), Jesus was no more than two years old. We know that Herod
died at Jericho about 4 B.C. after a lingering illness. He was not ill
at the time the Magi visited him; that seems quite certain, for he
was still living at Jerusalem. Evidently, then, the Magi visited
Bethlehem during the year 6 or 5 B.C. They must have come some
time after Christ's birth, for the journey from Persia to Jerusalem--
1200 miles--took three months to a year by camel.
How many Magi were there? Again we do not know! Early Christian
art represents two; tradition of Catholics of the Latin rite mentions
three; a memorial in the old Roman cemetery of Domitilla depicts
four; and the tradition of the Catholics of the Eastern rites favors
twelve. The Latin Catholics have called the Magi Gaspar, Melchior,
and Balthasar; the Armenian Catholics give them the names of
Kagba, Badadilma, etc.; and the Syrians, Larvandad, Hormisdas,
Gushnasaph, and so forth up to twelve.
There is the same divergence of opinion about the star which the
Magi followed. Some writers hold that it was miraculous; others
hold that it was probably an extraordinary conjunction of Jupiter,
Saturn, Mars, and another heavenly body. The astronomer Kepler
calculated that such a conjunction occurred in 7 and 6 B.C.
By their contact with the Jews the Persian astrologers may have
been looking forward to the coming of the Messias, the savior of
the world. In their religion they believed that each person on earth
was represented by his star in heaven. A most unusual sign in the
sky would thus signify to them that the long-expected savior had
come, and they would naturally go to the Jewish capital,
Jerusalem, to find the exact spot where according to the Jewish
prophets the Messias would be born.
For our sketch of the life of the Holy Family a most interesting
feature of the story of the Magi is St. Matthew's incidental
comment, "And entering the house, they found the Child with Mary
his mother" (Matt. 2:11). This seems to indicate that Christ was
born in the stable only because of dire necessity. The Holy Family
moved as soon as possible to a permanent residence in Bethlehem.
The Magi presented gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Throughout the centuries spiritual writers have made much of the
symbolic nature of these presents, but in reality the Magi probably
had no idea when they set out on their journey that Christ was
God. He would, they thought, be a great man, a savior of his people
and of the world, perhaps a powerful conqueror. Accordingly, he
deserved the gifts befitting nobility.
It is more than a mere possibility that at the moment the visitors
paid their homage to the infant King, a special grace illumined
their souls, and they realized that their Creator lay before them,
God in human form. The Magi were men of good will. They
followed their conscience in what it told them was good and noble,
and for this fidelity God was not to be outdone in generosity. He
repaid them lavishly here on earth. They were the first Gentiles,
representing the entire world, to behold the Redeemer. From this
contact with the very source of divine grace they must have won
for themselves eternal life in its fullness.
With us, too, God will not be outdone in generosity. Even though
we are obliged to obey His commandments by reason of the fact
that we are His creatures, in His goodness He will reward us for our
fidelity as if we were doing Him a favor. Actually, because He is
infinite, He needs nothing. By a triumph of His creative power He
brought us out of nothingness, endowed with a free will. In other
words He made us such faithful images of Himself that we have
something to give Him freely and thus be repaid bountifully.
Of course, our complete reward will not come until we have passed
from this life of testing and pilgrimage into the life where the
obscurity of faith is removed. Nevertheless, occasions usually
occur faintly foreshadowing the munificence with which God will
You yourself must certainly recall some instance when you were
praying for a great favor, some spiritual or temporal grace which
you needed urgently and which seemed to be for the good of your
soul and body. The favor was granted--and at that moment a spirit
of thanksgiving overwhelmed you which made you feel that all the
fidelity on your part was as nothing to make you worthy of
receiving such a gift. God showed that He would not be outdone in
generosity. Yet an experience of this sort can be at best an
inadequate preview of the supernatural reward God has promised
to those who love Him.
If it were possible to feel shame in heaven, all of us would blush to
the roots when we shall see with our own eyes so much from God
in return for so little from us. That is why in this present moment
we should build our "little" as high as possible, by giving back to
our Creator the free will He bestowed on us, by the tribute of our
faith in His word, our trust in His promises, our love of His
As was mentioned in an earlier chapter, this course is not easy to
follow when difficulties and discouragement come into your life. It
is, however, at such a time that you can merit most, for you draw
more on your love in making an act of faith in God's goodness
when bereavement or misfortune strikes. When your temporal
fortunes are at high tide, it is easy to be strong in faith.
By way of habit you ought to remember in times of evident
blessing and prosperity that other times will come when you will
not see so clearly that God is still directing your life. The words of
Holy Scripture describe this attitude accurately: "If we have
received good things from the hand of God, why should we not
receive evil? The Lord has given. and the Lord has taken away; as it
has pleased the Lord, so is it done. Blessed be the name of the
Lord" (Job 2:10; 1:21).
This is the attitude of absolutely unshakable trust in God that
brings down His superabundant blessings. God knows in His
wisdom why He permits or sends what He does. We do not grasp
these reasons, for our minds cannot comprehend the plans of
creation which God has formulated from all eternity and which He
is carrying out in time by means of His benign providence. We can,
however, have the stanchest conviction that everything God does
is for our good. With that attitude we rest content, leaving all our
affairs in His hands.
"God will never be outdone in generosity"--that is the principle
without exception, ever true. Sometimes you will hear complaints,
or perhaps you yourself may be tempted to complain against God's
justice. You read of a lifelong criminal reared in the slums, led
astray in his earliest years by hardened sinners, excelling in works
of evil, and in the end dying miserably without remorse or the
least preparation for eternity. Someone will say, "But the poor man
never had a chance! Why should he be damned?"
The answer is simple. We do not know that he is damned. God
alone is aware of the state of that man's soul at the moment it
appeared for judgment. We must, therefore, completely reserve all
judgment on our part.
A related case of this sort actually happened in one of our large
cities, except that the criminal in question was baptized and
received into the Church minutes before his death. Here the
objection was not that the unfortunate fellow had lost his soul, for
according to all external signs he saved it: but good Catholics were
heard to complain that such a last-minute conversion was unfair to
the faithful souls who had frequented the sacraments, performed
arduous works of charity, and had in the words of the parable of
the workers in the vineyard, "borne the heat of the day."
It is correct doctrine that Baptism remits all temporal as well as
eternal punishment, so that this particular criminal, dying
immediately after Baptism, probably was received directly into
heaven. On the other hand, so the complaint ran, the devoted
Catholic, baptized in infancy, can die in the grace of God after a
lifetime of service, yet some temporal punishment for forgiven
mortal and venial sins can well remain, calling for purification in
purgatory. "How can God be less fair, less generous?"
Again the answer must be: "Reserve judgment!" God has His own
way of evening all scores. Here on earth we see only part of the
pattern of His providence. In the next life we shall see it all, and
one of the greatest joys of heaven will be the answer to this
problem. We shall behold the picture of all creation moving before
our eyes, and all along it we shall see that justice and mercy have
both triumphed, and God's generosity has always surpassed by far
the generosity of the noblest of His creatures.
In your own life the application is evident. If from your experience
thus far you think God is treating you stingily your judgment is
wrong. Perhaps you are the one at fault as far as stingy treatment
is concerned. If, however, you are doing your best, the best that is
in you, wait at least until the moving picture of your life is over.
You will have all eternity to decide who has been more generous--
you or your Creator. Until then, wait! From the Magi you can learn
that you will receive a reward tremendously greater than you
The visit of the Magi to the Infant Jesus has, however, a lesson
equally as impressive as that of God's generosity. Theirs was the
occasion of the first "Epiphany," the "showing-forth" of the Saviour
to the Gentile world which the Magi represented. In the early
Church this feast, celebrated on January 6, rivaled and surpassed
December 25 in liturgical importance (as it still does). The
Christians of the first centuries considered the day of Christ's
manifestation to the whole world even more momentous than the
day of His birth.
We in our twentieth century cannot easily understand how
exclusive the worship of God in the Old Testament had been. The
Hebrews were the Chosen People, and to them God confided the
revelation of the one true God and the promise of the Redeemer to
come. The Jews thus became a people set apart. Theirs was not the
mission primarily to spread Jewry to the ends of the earth as the
one and the only permanent religion. They were to preserve their
heritage free from the abominations of the idolatry practiced by
their pagan neighbors. They were to make converts if possible, but
even here they were warned against the possibility of being
corrupted (as history shows they repeatedly were corrupted) by the
example of those with whom they came in contact. Fundamentally,
they were to keep pure the worship of the one true God in
preparation for the Messias who would make all things new. All
this led to the mistaken notion that exclusiveness was an essential
feature of the Kingdom of God.
With the appearance of Christ all was changed. The years of
promise were over, and the religion Jesus instituted was not to be a
religion restricted to any one people or race or land. It was to be
truly catholic. "Catholic" means universal, and universal means
that it was to be made up of everyone everywhere. The Magi
represented the multitudes of the Gentiles who were to accept the
new faith when the Chosen People rejected their chance to be the
first-fruits of Christ's redemption.
That is why the visit of the Magi teaches the universality of the
good tidings of Jesus Christ. The allness of the Church means that
no one in the Church is permitted to treat any human (any
potential member of the Church) in such a way as to deprive him
of his basic human rights.
All men have immortal souls, for whose salvation Christ died as
much as for your own soul. The universality of Christ's redemption
and of His Church brings before us a sharp conclusion: in God's
sight there does not exist any inferior race or inferior people, and
we are positively in the wrong and may be sinning against charity
and justice if we treat any person unfairly because of his
nationality, racial stock, or color.
If we were to act thus, Mary and Joseph would be the first to
reprehend us. At Bethlehem there were no sharp looks at a skin
darkened by the sun of another land, no curt snubs given in return
for sincere good will, no condescension as to inferiors. None of
these--for Joseph as head of the Holy Family was a just man, and
Joseph knew that all men were sons of the same God, brothers in
His creation. He understood that the Infant had come to save all
men with no color-line distinction. Joseph treated the Magi for
what they were, potential heirs of the Kingdom of Heaven, just as
he and Mary were, with all the rights of human beings.
Or did Mary refuse to put the Babe into their arms to let them
adore Him as grace told them who He was? The answer is given by
the shrines of Our Lady in every corner of the earth. There are
madonnas that are Chinese and Mexican and Negro and French and
Bohemian and Italian. In every land the Mother of God extends her
If prejudice and early training or an unfortunate incomplete
experience with a racial or national minority tend to make us
forget the Church Universal, we have only to look at the Magi
scene and then thank God that we were not the ones excluded on
that day in Bethlehem. Had Christianity been reserved for the Jews
alone (who after all, despite shortcomings preserved the
knowledge of the true God and fought and died for it throughout
so many centuries), would our supercilious treatment of other
peoples still remain in us?
Again, it is this same St. Joseph, leading the foreign Magi to the
Mother and Son who is Patron of the Universal Church. The Church
is Christ's family, and all of its members are His brothers because
He has adopted them as His own in a special way. Mary is its
mother, for Jesus gave her to us when He gave her to St. John on
Calvary. And Joseph. the foster father and protector of Jesus, thus
becomes truly the father and protector of all the Church--
The Magi "found the Child with Mary his mother." Wherever we
seek the Child, we, too, will find Him with Mary His mother. Our
best guide to Mary in turn is St. Joseph, he who loves her more
than any other creature and who is loved by her to the same
Familiarity dulls our perception. We hear so often of the
unsurpassable holiness of the Mother of God that its magnificent
attractiveness escapes us. Mary is one of ourselves, with a
character so sweet that we cannot imagine its full tenderness.
Her maternal compassion for all in this life is unbounded.
Particularly will she aid mothers in their needs, for understanding
what it means to be a mother she understands how to love as a
mother. To those who are making an effort to carry out the law of
God in their lives she is ever gracious. Even to hardened and
blinded sinners she is always the mother, seeking her lost
In temptation, in difficulties of all sorts, go to Mary through
Joseph. Mary will answer in some way or other every petition
addressed to her. This is so certain that the Church has approved
and indulgenced St. Bernard's prayer, called the Memorare from its
first word in Latin: "Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that
never was it known that any one who fled to thy protection,
implored thy help, or sought thy intercession was left unaided.
Inspired with this confidence I fly to thee, O virgin of virgins, my
mother. To thee I come, before thee I stand, sinful and sorrowful.
O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in
thy mercy hear and answer me, Amen."
You will never fail to obtain the peace of Christ through your
prayer to Mary, for in every instance you will find the Child with
Mary His mother.
CHAPTER SEVEN: THE FLIGHT
THE rest of the story of the Magi is well known: how Herod
jealously tried to trap Jesus in order to kill Him, and how God in
His providence warned the Magi not to return to Herod to tell him
the whereabouts of the Babe. Herod made another attempt to
murder Jesus, even at the cost of massacring the boys of
Bethlehem (of whom there must have been at most forty "two years
old or under"). But again the crafty monarch was thwarted, for
"when the Magi had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord
appeared in a dream to Joseph, saying, `Arise, and take the Child
and his mother and flee into Egypt, and remain there until I tell
thee. For Herod will seek the Child to destroy him.' So he arose and
took the Child and his mother by night, and withdrew into Egypt
and remained there until the death of Herod" (Matt. 2:13-14).
Because of the necessity of secrecy Joseph probably did not lead
Jesus and Mary to the coast and then southward along it to Egypt;
that route was too well traveled. Choosing the more difficult way,
he went directly south in order to cross Palestine's boundaries as
soon as possible. The legends locate the Egyptian home in
Memphis, but it seems more likely that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph
settled in the Jewish colony at Alexandria. Their trip from
Bethlehem took at least twelve days and was about 350 miles long.
As on that earlier trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem, Mary rode on
an ass, but now she was holding Jesus in her arms while Joseph
Since the Holy Family stayed in Egypt until after Herod's death
(which occurred in 4 B.C.), their exile probably lasted about four
years--from 6 to 3 or 2 B.C.
In our past glimpses of the life of the Holy Family we have had
several occasions to point out the workings of God's providence in
directing their course. In all the infancy and hidden life of Christ
the story of the flight into Egypt teaches more forcibly than any
other incident that God's ways are not man's ways, and that God in
the end always obtains His purposes despite the deliberate
attempts of man to frustrate His designs.
Herod was determined to murder the Infant. He craftily plotted in
secrecy; God made use of extraordinary means to bring into the
open Herod's hidden designs. The cruel monarch ordered a mass
bloody execution; again God, without any great effort on His part
(as it would seem to us), removed the Child Jesus and His mother
safely from the clutches of the tyrant. Except for the angel's
warning to Joseph, no special miracle was involved.
If we marvel at God's providence at work ("providence" means
"seeing before," "planning ahead"), equally must we marvel at
Joseph's obedience. Here is the perfect example of a creature's
cooperation with the plan of his Creator. Joseph did not know the
future. God alone knew what He was going to accomplish. Joseph
blindly obeyed the angel, realizing that eventually he would see
that this plan of action was the best because it had been ordered
by God. Was it easy for him to act thus--or is it ever easy to act on
blind faith in God's promises? If it were, the good Lord would
hardly have rewarded His loved ones so munificently for their
All through His life Jesus seemed to place a high premium on
people's faith in Him and in His divine mission. He knew that they
were acting against the sense of pride and material self-
sufficiency which dictates, "I know what is best, I have intelligence
enough to judge what is good for myself, and I believe no more
than I see!"
So often our Lord's words dealt with faith and its reward. "Thy faith
hath made thee whole." "Amen, I say to you, I have not found so
great faith in Israel." "Because thou hast seen me, Thomas, thou
hast believed. Blessed are they who have not seen and yet
believed." "If you have faith like a mustard seed, you will say to
this mountain, `Remove from here,' and it will remove." "Woman,
great is thy faith. Let it be done to thee as thou wilt." Always, the
Sacred Heart of Jesus responded most warmly to the persons who
had faith in Him, who trusted Him, who believed His words and His
prophecies, even though they did not perceive at the moment how
He would accomplish His ends.
We can well understand, then, with what joy the eyes of the Babe
looked up at St. Joseph and saw him obeying promptly without a
word of complaint or questioning. The angel had said, "Take the
Child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, for Herod will seek to
destroy him." That was all Joseph needed. "He took the Child and
his mother and withdrew into Egypt."
It is the contemplation of this scene that has brought so many
great writers and preachers to point out the rich depths of Joseph's
character. Knowing what we do of Christ's later appreciation of
those persons who had faith in Him, we see now why the Babe
beheld His foster father with special approval. In a human way we
could venture that Joseph's faith was enough to make even God
marvel and say, "Truly have I selected a remarkable man to be my
foster father on earth, a worthy companion and husband for Mary--
the wife who had heard from the lips of Elizabeth, that blessed was
she who had believed, because the things promised her by the
Lord should be accomplished."
However, our admiration of the workings of God's providence and
of Joseph's faith and obedience must not stop at mere admiration.
Practically, in our own lives we must apply the lessons before us.
We must draw strength from the manner in which God justified His
wisdom. Difficult times can easily occur when our trust in His
providence will be sorely tried. On such occasions we will need all
the strength we now have, and perhaps more. God for His part will
give us sufficient grace; nonetheless, the struggle can be most
difficult, and sometimes the outcome will remain long in the
To understand God's providence completely is impossible, as we
have commented so often. God is infinite, our minds are finite.
Here on this earth we cannot see the why and the wherefore of all
events because we do not see the whole picture. But for God
everything is one eternal present. Before Him lies all creation,
from its beginning to its end. He beholds good rewarded, evil
punished, and His own justice and mercy vindicated. For us during
the time of our pilgrimage and testing we are looking at only the
reverse side of the tapestry of creation. Hence, our judgments
about divine providence are of necessity woefully incomplete.
There is one way of completing their evidence, and that is the way
On God's word we know that He is all-good, all-powerful, all-just,
all-merciful. Nothing can happen in the world without His
permission. We know, too, that He has created man with a free will.
By this fact of creation He has implicitly pledged Himself not to
interfere directly with the workings of that free will. He will help,
He will coax, advise, admonish, but He will never force that will. Of
course, we do not deny that there is a mystery here, for while
man's free will ever works in full liberty despite the infinite power
of God, nevertheless God's omnipotence somehow governs all
things despite the freedom of man.
Joseph and Mary in their superlative sanctity trusted in God almost
automatically. We, however, weak and inclined to sin, must study
their reasons for such trust. We have to learn these reasons as a
child learns his lessons at school, so that they will be at hand to
strengthen us when trials come. At the moment we obey God's
providence, at the moment we trust in His goodness, we will be
using the same motives Joseph and Mary used in their marvelous
obedience: God is all-good and will never permit us to be tempted
beyond our strength.
Our vision on earth is always hampered unless we remember that
temporal and created things are only means to our salvation. Life
here simply is not the final goal. If it were, death would be the
greatest tragedy possible.
After we have done our best, if the cross enters our lives, our
attitude should be something of this sort: "O my God, I know from
my faith in Your word that You are all-good, all-merciful, and all-
just. I know that this trial has come to me by Your own permission.
I believe that You wish nothing but my happiness. I believe firmly
that in the end, either in this life or in the next, I shall see how all
this suffering is for my own good. Here and now, accepting all this
on faith, I welcome what You are sending me. If I ask anything at
all, it is for strength to bear this trial generously, without
complaint. Sacred Heart of Jesus, I trust in thee!"
Is this apathy? Not at all. An apathetic man shrinks back and
refuses to do anything to reject misfortune. He does not have even
the positive reaction of accepting for God's sake a trial which he
cannot avoid. Nor is this the stoicism of the old pagans or the
spinelessness of the decrepit and debasing religions of the Orient.
Active conformity to God's will elevates human nature, enlightens
it, lifts it to the level of the divine plan. Although you yourself do
not know the exact reason why God desires this or that course in
your regard, you are willing that it come to you because you know
that the good Lord has chosen it for you. Relying on His word, you
accept it willingly. Such trust can reach the heroic.
This trust in Divine Providence is not a substitute for personal
effort. Only after we have done all we can, may we leave ourselves
in God's hands complacently. In such an event our trust will never
Perhaps you can see from all these considerations why the Church
has richly indulgenced the act of resignation to death: "O my God,
I accept gladly and calmly whatever death it may please Thee to
send me with its pain, anguish, and suffering." To make this act of
resignation--or better still, should we not call it an act of
conformity?--to make it only once during a lifetime is sufficient to
gain a plenary indulgence at the hour of death provided we have
confessed our sins, received Communion, and prayed for the
intention of the Holy Father at the time we say the prayer.
As a daily habit, offer yourself to Divine Providence every
morning. If in advance you accept what God will send for the day,
you will be ready in advance. Your strength to bear the light
crosses and trials--as well as the occasional heavy ones--will be
increased a hundredfold. The offering is simple. It can be made at
home in a moment, on a busy street corner, anywhere, anytime.
"My God, I accept whatever cross and death it may please Thee to
send me, whatever you send this very day." And why? "...for love of
There is the great motive: "for love of Thee." Your faith has
flowered into love, for in making the act of loving conformity to
God's will, you are making at the same time a deep act of faith
such as Christ rewarded in all His dear ones. You are trusting the
good Lord for all the strength necessary. You have no fear that you
will be "snowed under" by troubles.
As we have already insisted, people fear that God will take
advantage of their generosity if they explicitly accept what He will
send them. No! In the ordinary case they undergo the same trials
they would have encountered in any event. The only difference is
that they themselves are changed: now no longer complaining or
reluctant, but actively conformed to God's will.
This conformity does not mean that you must feel perfectly calm
and happy in your knowledge that you are doing what God wants
you to do. The mistake of assuming that feelings are the will is
only too common. To put the matter simply, what you deliberately
desire is the product of your will, a rational faculty. What you feel
is the product of your sense nature.
It is a fact of experience that we do not have complete dominion
over our sense nature. Feelings come unwanted and remain even
after we wish to be rid of them. In the moral order this rebellion of
our sense desires against our intellectual nature is called
"concupiscence." Before Adam and Eve sinned, they were free from
concupiscence and had their feelings under perfect control.
However, in our own case, because of original sin our sense nature
is attracted to all sorts of objects no matter whether they are good
or evil. This involuntary attraction is not formally sinful in the
slightest degree. Only in an analogous sense can it be called
sinful, for by its drawing power it acts as temptation that inclines
men to sin.
What we say here of rebellious feelings not in conformity with
God's will is equally true of temptations against faith or against
purity. Your rule for judging such thoughts should be this: "Do I
want to think of this or not?" If you can truthfully say that you do
not want a rebellious, blasphemous, or unchaste thought--no
matter how attractive it may feel--you need merely disregard the
temptation, treating it with absolute contempt. Because of this
disregard the feeling will usually disappear of its own accord
because it ceases to receive attention.
In all matters of this kind it is essential to draw your attention into
some legitimate, interesting channel. You can easily perceive why
it is dangerous to try to fight directly against thoughts of
unchastity, complaints against God, or doubts against faith. The
more attention you concede such thoughts, the stronger they are
to tempt you. That is why the discreet and actually the braver
method of action is to conquer them by flight. The testimony of
psychologists is very clear: certain types of thoughts should be
banished by oblique defense rather than frontal attack.
It is somewhat imprudent to judge yourself according to this norm:
"Did I take pleasure in an illicit thought?" The difficulty in
applying this standard to your conduct lies in your inability to
find what degree of pleasure was voluntary, to what extent you
perhaps consented to it. More safe and reliable is the rule we have
already set down: "Did I want it or not?"
Perhaps this further consideration of judging our thoughts seems
to have taken us far afield from our glimpse of Joseph's perfect
conformity to God's will. In reality we have been considering
explicitly all that would be implicitly included in Joseph's method
of acting. Since Joseph was so great a saint, he obeyed God in
complete peace of heart. We, however, must take more elementary
means which Joseph in his heights of generosity did not have to
employ, in order to keep our service of God from becoming a
burden which it should not be. In St. Paul's words, our service
should be reasonable.
All the generosity in the world will be of little avail if we fail to use
prudent helps. Our service of God can and should be made at least
as attractive as the sin and the selfishness which attempt to draw
our hearts with the alluring glitter of their fool's gold.
For example, in the very instance of conformity with God's will
which we have been considering, let us suppose that you begin
bravely to accept every incident God permits to befall you. While
following your high ideals in yeoman fashion, rebellious thoughts
of one sort or another come into your mind. If you thereupon stop
all your progress and concentrate on obliterating these thoughts
(out of a mistaken notion that by direct attack you could be free of
them), the struggle is exhausting. It would eventually become so
one sided that your entire campaign of following God's will in your
daily life would be discarded out of discouragement and disgust.
On the other hand, sheer contempt and lack of notice of such
temptations would prevent their further effectiveness against you.
Very often the devil does not use violent temptations against good
folk who try to serve God as best they can. Such people are too
generous, too alert, to fall into an open pit. But they are a prey to a
snare--discouragement; and the best hook on which to hang
discouragement (as Satan knows from long experience with the
human race) is the idea of failure.
On the road to Egypt Joseph might have given in to this
discouragement as a result of his apparent failure. After all, who
was he? What success had he achieved? God had chosen him to be
the foster father of Jesus Christ, God made Man. He was the
husband and the guardian of the virgin Mother of God; but to
correspond with that dignity what had he accomplished? He was
only a carpenter in moderate circumstances at best. When Jesus
was born, he could offer Him not even moderate comfort. For some
reason or other, despite his best efforts he could find only a stable
for the Christ Child.
He was a member of the Holy Family, that was true. Was he worthy
to be the foster father of God Incarnate or the husband of the
Blessed Virgin, of her who was chosen to be the Mother of God?
Amid such sanctity any human being might feel that he is the
worst sinner or at least potentially the most craven of souls. And,
of all things, Joseph had authority over these two holiest! He, the
carpenter of Nazareth, had been made the head of this Holy
Family, and he was only Joseph, a failure.
Of course Joseph did not reason in this fashion. He could have
done so had he been like ourselves. In these reasonings of false
humility we see the virus of discouragement grow out of the
thought of failure. In God's eyes there is only one kind of grave
failure, and that failure is the loss of one's soul. If you save your
soul, you are essentially a success. In God's sight, no matter how
you may have failed in temporalities, you are a success.
In advising someone else it is a very simple thing to dispose of the
problem of failure by saying that faintheartedness comes from
wounded pride, and that discouragement could be avoided if one
were perfectly humble. But it is an entirely different matter to feel
in yourself the crippling, crushing burden that weighs down your
heart and converts every sweet joy and pleasure into galling
reminders of apparently unattainable happiness and satisfaction.
The reasons can be so many. A man starts early in life to found a
business. It fails. A woman enters on a promising marriage. She
meets sickness, estrangement, or worse. Parents may sacrifice
everything they have and everything they are for the sake of their
children. The children callously run off into wild, unhappy
marriages or lose the faith. All such tragedies cut down the
promise of a lifetime at its root and seem to spell but one word:
Of course these are not ordinary occurrences, and they will
probably never happen in your life; but you ought to remember
the attitude Jesus and Mary and Joseph would have in order to help
other people in difficult situations of this type. By means of your
warmhearted sympathy you can bring comfort and consolation to
those in distress or bereavement, and you can thus accomplish a
vast amount of good as an instrument of God's mercy and love.
Most people occasionally feel they are failures in the little things
of life, such as the constant monotony of working for years
without promotion, or simply the humdrum raising of a family. Yet
as we have repeatedly insisted, this so-called humdrum raising of
a family can be a very holy, happy experience; and the spirit of
faith and unselfishness in family life is lavishly rewarded by the
love and gratitude it evokes in others.
For some persons the idea of failure occurs in their spiritual life.
They have been waging a gallant struggle against strong
temptation or a strong habit which they never completely
overcome. After months and years of successfully making more
and more progress, they still feel discouraged. The thought strikes
them, "Why try any more? You're still tempted. You're a failure."
To such false reasonings there is only one answer needed, just as
Joseph would have answered the false difficulties put to him on
the road to Egypt: "Sacred Heart of Jesus, I trust in Thee." The fact
is that temptation in itself is never sinful. To resist temptation
steadfastly is a great virtue. Perseverance in doing good should
have but one result--buoyant inspiration and zest for the future.
CHAPTER EIGHT: THE LOSS
"BUT when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared
in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, `Arise, take the Child and
his mother, and go into the land of Israel, for those who sought the
Child's life are dead.' So he arose and took the Child and his
mother and went into the land of Israel. But hearing that Archelaus
was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to
go there; and being warned in a dream, he withdrew into the region
of Galilee. And he went and settled in a town called Nazareth. And
the Child grew and became strong. He was full of wisdom and the
grace of God was upon him" (Matt. 2:19-23; Luke 2:40).
It is quite noteworthy that Joseph carefully studied the political
conditions of Judea before he settled there with his two charges.
Finding the reign of Archelaus potentially as dangerous as that of
his father Herod, Joseph decided not to reside in Bethlehem but to
travel eighty miles farther north to Nazareth in Galilee, which was
under different rule. His actions confirm our previous estimate of
his great character--a character prudent, brave, trusting in God's
word, yet not presuming that miracles would occur when human
foresight and initiative would be sufficient to protect the life of
the Christ Child.
We can hardly make the same claim for ourselves in our own lives.
When problems arise that call for immediate adjustment, we pray
to God for help, almost expecting miracles to solve our difficulties.
Of course, the spirit of faith and trust in God that such prayer
indicates is highly laudable; and if our prayer is sincere, God will
infallibly help us in one way or another. The point to remember,
however, is that God in His wisdom has chosen a certain order of
providence. The events which we call "ordinary" in this present
order would be most stupendous miracles if God had chosen to run
this world according to a different plan. Because they happen
every day, we often fail to see how unswervingly they point to the
wisdom and love of the Creator.
The sun, for instance, rises and sets daily with precision more
perfect than that of any clock; and this precision affects not only
our one sun with its system of planets and its moon, but the entire
vast universe with its thousands of such suns already known to us
and its possible billions of which we know nothing. And all these
bodies whirl in space so far extended that its huge dimensions lose
meaning for our minds.
You yourself speak with a fluent tongue resulting partially from a
wonderful system of nervous telegraphy in your body. You present
a pleasing appearance because of the health maintained in you by
an automatic chemical equilibrium that is far more delicate and
self-adjusting than anything possible in our best-equipped
laboratories. You work with a stamina governed by the minute
secretions of glands whose intricate internal structure and
operations are still largely a scientific mystery.
In other words God has chosen a certain order and kind of events
within which He is exercising His omnipotence. He wishes us to
utilize the facilities which we find at hand in this order. Only as a
means of convincing incredulous human nature (and for reasons
He alone fully comprehends) will He interfere with the order He
The lesson is simple, yet so hard to learn for all of us. It is the
lesson Jesus, Mary, and Joseph have exemplified throughout: Pray
as if all depended on your prayers, and cooperate with your prayer
by working as if all depended on your work. Nor should you be
surprised when your prayer will be answered--most likely in an
Such are our thoughts as we travel north with the Holy Family
toward Nazareth. The years of exile are over, and now the Three
are returning to the spot which for thirty years will witness the
hidden life of the God of all creation. It will be a quiet life of
obscurity, so overwhelmingly ordinary as to convince even the
most skeptical that Christ actually did come on earth to redeem
and to teach the ordinary man and woman, the "man on the street."
Of the period of the hidden life we are told only one incident--
touching, human, yet veiled with mystery--the loss of Jesus in the
Temple, and His painful separation from Joseph and Mary.
"His parents were wont to go every year to Jerusalem at the Feast
of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up to
Jerusalem according to the custom of the Feast" (Luke 2:41-43).
It was a custom for Joseph and Mary to make the yearly trip to the
Temple at Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of the Passover.
Whether or not they took Jesus with them on each occasion we do
not know. However, since their Son's obligations as a Jew would
formally begin with His twelfth, or as others claim with His
thirteenth year, they brought Him with them on this occasion
which St. Luke describes, to perform His duties as a faithful Jew, or
else at least to familiarize Him with these obligations.
It may appear puzzling why Jesus, God Himself, would have to be
familiarized with the duties of a faithful Jew. Did He not know all
As God, indeed, Jesus had infinite knowledge, and as man He
received abundantly all infused knowledge He would need for His
mission here. However, in addition to this, He willed to be
educated and to learn by experience just like every other ordinary
person. His purpose was always the same: to be as much like us as
"And after they had fulfilled the days, when they were returning,
the boy Jesus remained in Jerusalem, and his parents did not know
it. But thinking he was in the caravan, they had come a day's
journey before it occurred to them to look for him among their
relatives and acquaintances" (Luke 2:43, 44).
Mary and Joseph committed no fault of carelessness in losing
Jesus. For one thing, as He was to say Himself, He willed to remain
in Jerusalem as the Eternal Father willed Him to do. Moreover, at
the Passover it was customary for the Jewish boys to be grouped in
a sort of catechism class. When their caravan would be due to
leave the Holy City, they might travel together just as their fathers
and mothers traveled in separate groups. After the slow first day's
ride the family groups would reunite at evening at the first khan or
caravansary several miles outside of Jerusalem. It was here that
Mary met Joseph. Jesus was not to be found.
We can hardly realize how much Joseph and Mary suffered at this
moment. In our own lives we question God if He sends us
suffering; but can we ever wonder and complain at our lot after we
see here the two holiest of God's creatures being given a cup of
sorrow directly from the hand of their loving Son, God Incarnate?
From the depths of His own love for Mary and Joseph, Jesus willed
to remain in the Temple, knowing the agony which He would cause
His parents. There was a higher obedience here which Jesus
Joseph and Mary remembered what the inspired prophets had
written. The Messias, the Saviour of the world, was to be a man of
sorrows, and He was to redeem mankind by means of suffering.
But Joseph and Mary were not God; and from every indication
given us by the Gospels, they themselves were not apprised of the
exact future, the moment when their Son would lay down His life
for His adopted brothers.
The two loved Him as their Son with the love of parents. They
loved Him as their God as only the two peerless saints of all ages
could love Him. Nonetheless, they were always still His creatures,
and they recognized their position perfectly. For all that Mary and
Joseph were aware, the time for the Redemption might have
arrived. Perhaps at this very moment Jesus was being subjected to
the indignities and vicious attacks that were to make Him
"despised and the most abject of men." His parents could not deny
that they had lost Him through no fault of their own, but they
always felt themselves as the two to whom He had been entrusted.
No exile was hard, no poverty was grinding no suffering counted
for anything as long as they possessed Jesus. He was the light of
their lives around whom their love centered in a manner which
ordinary parents' love for their children only faintly shadows. Now
Jesus was gone, and terrible loneliness set in for these two hearts.
It was a darkness the extent of which we cannot measure unless we
compare it with the greatest of all lonelinesses which Jesus was to
let Himself experience in the agony in Gethsemani and during the
three hours on the cross.
And yet how all this suffering bound Joseph to Mary and Mary to
Joseph! Before, they had been united closely, as closely as
possible. Now, that "possible" was increased by this suffering
together. They were one as they otherwise never could have been.
At this moment of desolation, with Jesus gone--they knew not
where or why or how--they had only each other.
In our own day we often pray to our Blessed Mother and offer her
our sympathy in this dolor.
What is our sympathy compared to that of Mary's husband? Do we
realize what Joseph meant to Mary in that moment of anguish? His
was the heart most closely attuned to hers, emptied of self-love in
its love for her. How true it is that God, even while He permits or
sends the bitterest suffering, sweetens it with some consolation to
make it easier to bear! In this case, when the presence of the
Sacred Heart of Jesus was withdrawn from Mary, the heart that
comforted her was, after her own, the heart closest to Him whom
she had lost.
Suffering is like a powerful drug. Bringing out all the nobility of
the human soul, it can bind husband and wife (just as it bound
Mary and Joseph) more closely than all the love of prosperous
times. On the other hand, if accepted with bitterness and
resentment, it acts as a force to separate even the closest of hearts
and to expose the selfishness and cowardice that all of us know lie
hidden in our hearts.
In your own experience you have undoubtedly witnessed the
tenderness of a generous husband toward a sickly wife. Perhaps
you have heard a widow courageously tell of her satisfaction that
she was the one who was left behind to fight life's battles, because
her "George" or "Bill" or "Tom" could never have fought alone if she
had been the one who was taken first by death.
These are the people who in this twentieth century mirror in their
lives the mutual support and affection that Joseph and Mary
shared on that evening two thousand years ago, when clammy fear
gripped Our Lady's heart and troubled the deep calm that had
characterized Joseph's conduct in every previous trial.
"And it came to pass after three days that they found him in the
Temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them
and asking them questions. And all who were listening to him were
amazed at his understanding, and his answers. And when they saw
him, they were astonished. And his mother said to him, `Son, why
hast thou done so to us? Behold, thy father and I have been
seeking thee sorrowing.' And he said to them, `How is it that you
sought me? Did you not know that I must be about my Father's
business?' And they did not understand the word that he spoke to
them" (Luke 2:46-50)
If Joseph and Mary did not understand at that time the meaning of
this desolation, their loss of their dearly beloved Son, how can we
expect to do so now? We reverently wait in patience, knowing that
one day in heaven we shall understand (as they already have
understood) how and why God sent this cross to bless those whom
He loved most. Together with Joseph and Mary, we can say that
this is our mystery also.
We do, however, learn this with certainty: Jesus evidently willed to
separate Himself from His parents to show us that God's will must
come first, above all human ties, even if the preference will cause
pain. If the loss in the Temple had never occurred, we in our day
might have said, "God willed something in my life which was a
source of much pain to me. Was it a punishment of sin? Or am I
one of the unlucky ones who are not favorites of the Almighty as
were Joseph and Mary?"
Now we cannot have even a pretense of justification for our
complaint. The so-called favorites of the Almighty are not wrapped
in heavenly bliss during their lives on earth. They have been
subjected to obedience to the will of God not only as much as, but
tremendously more than we have ever been or shall be. Jesus
wished to indicate that His mission on earth was more important
than His tenderest and closest ties. Years later, in the Garden of
Gethsemani, He would show that His mission was--in a certain
sense--even more important than any other consideration in His
life: "Father, not My will but Thine be done!"
The conduct of Joseph and Mary is a good example for all parents
to follow when they discern the seeds of a priestly or religious
vocation in their children. Mary and Joseph perceived that Jesus
had reasons of His own for bringing about the temporary
separation, painful though it might be; but those reasons were
God's reasons, and it was not in the province of His creatures, even
the two closest to the Creator, to dispute them.
Mother and father will discern that their children have reasons of
their own for wishing to leave home, and if those reasons are
based on the desire to devote their lives entirely to the service of
God, mother and father, like Mary and Joseph, will wholeheartedly
Ordinarily, good Catholic parents will make no objection when
their children find suitable partners and leave home life to found a
family of their own. It is painfully surprising that sometimes these
same parents are the most reluctant to permit their sons and
daughters to take up lives consecrated to God in the seminary or
convent. One of the most common and most shallow of arguments
used to dissuade such vocations is the fallacy that the close ties of
family life will thus be sundered irrevocably. Actually, a strange
paradox occurs. In the religious and priestly life spiritual bonds
unite parents and children much more strongly than did the
former links of home life. In the case of those children who choose
marriage, the objection is not made; yet it is of the very nature of
married life that husband and wife relinquish their dependent
connections with father and mother in order to devote themselves
entirely to each other and to the home of which they are now the
In the ideal Catholic home parents pray that God will call at least
one of their progeny to His service. The honor of serving God
specially by His own invitation is an honor bestowed on the whole
family. In such a family the entire atmosphere is favorable to the
development of a vocation, but at the same time there is no
"forcing" of a son to look toward the priesthood or of a daughter to
desire convent life.
All imprudent and reprehensible urgings of an overfond parent are
definitely out of place in a case where the children themselves
evince no desire to follow Christ's call. They probably have not
been called. Moreover, a vocation to the priesthood or to religious
life as a lay brother or a nun is an invitation, not a command. To
repeat: the proper attitude is neither to exert undue influence
where the vocation does not exist, nor to attempt to discourage it
where it does exist.
If, however, hindrances are placed in the children's way, they can
well reply in the words of the boy Christ that they "must be about
their Father's business." A higher call has come to them, and no
one has the right to interfere. In cases where interference does
occur from an importunate parent, selfishly wishing to monopolize
the child's affection for a lifetime, it can often be traced to the
lack of realization that the years of helpless infancy and childhood
are over. The once dependent boys and girls are now entering on
their own lives, and they begin to possess their own rights.
As parents, there should be no regret on your part that the children
have at last arrived at the age of choosing their state in life. This is
the time when the grandeur of your vocation as parents is ripening
into full maturity. In earlier years you were sowing the seeds of
your children's character by the good example and the training
you gave them. Now you have the opportunity of seeing your
efforts rewarded. If your son seeks the priesthood, if your
daughter wishes to enter the convent, you have the joy of knowing
that you have been instrumental in helping to bring forth another
life consecrated to the service of God. On the other hand, if your
children enter married life, your happiness will be full provided
that you have given your own example of holy married life to
stand out in their minds as the ideal they wish to imitate directly.
All these considerations look only to the present life. The ultimate
norm is eternity. The manner in which you raised your children
can be judged correctly in the light of what you did to assist them
to save their souls. You have a special interest in those souls. By
your own action you cooperated with God's own creative power. At
the moment of conception God cooperated with your parental act
to create and infuse those immortal souls whose destiny you were
to influence. There was the essential dignity of your parenthood.
Its corresponding responsibility was to mold and guide these
children entrusted to you. Why, then, should you feel regret and
sorrow if you see the members of your family embarking on
careers that are likely to bring them safely into their eternal
destiny? The only possible regret and worry would be in the event
that by your own negligence your children's salvation would be
In another fashion the stewardship of parents may be terminated
by the angel of death, taking one of their charges prematurely. It is
pitiful to behold the broken hearts of fathers and mothers who
have lost children in infancy or at any time before adult life has
been reached. By all means it is a most difficult cross, but their
sorrow should be softened and sweetened by thoughts such as
those on which we have been reflecting. God, the loving Master,
has seen fit to take an account of His stewards earlier than
ordinary. The child was entrusted to his Catholic father and
mother to be prepared for eternity, as every child is entrusted. God
has taken him to heaven perhaps before the inevitable frailties of
human nature could tarnish the freshness of the gift of sanctifying
grace he received in Baptism.
As for the parents, their work is done with regard to their
youngster. They can look forward now to a family in two worlds,
represented by a saint in heaven praying for his brothers and
sisters and father and mother still on earth.
These are not merely comforting thoughts enunciated here for the
solace they impart. They participate in the absolute truth of our
faith, and they are not true because they are comforting, but they
are comforting because they are true. Bereaved parents can look to
the bereavement of Joseph and Mary as they seek Jesus in the
courts of the Temple. From Joseph and Mary they will receive the
peace of Christ, and solace and hope in the day when once again
their family like the Holy Family shall know the satisfying joy of
reunion--reunion in God.
CHAPTER NINE: THE HIDDEN LIFE
"AND he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was
subject to them; and his mother kept all these things carefully in
her heart. And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and grace before
God and men" (Luke 2:51-52).
Jesus returns with His parents to Nazareth, and Holy Scripture
draws a veil over the hidden life of the next nearly twenty years.
The Son of God faces the vast task of redeeming the world. At the
same time with the purpose of being our perfect model He chooses
to live a life of obscurity, prayer, and obedience amid the drab
monotony of commonplace everyday life.
If we would ask a proof that Christ came on earth to teach us by
His example, the hidden life at Nazareth should more than satisfy
us. Very few people are in the limelight. Most of us find our lives
extremely ordinary. Even the relatively few who mount to fame
find that the glamour and the glory soon pass, and that their
private lives are fundamentally just as obscure as those of the rest
of their fellows.
Throughout His life on this earth Jesus was constantly making use
of common things to teach us the ways of holiness. In the
sacraments He elevated such everyday materials as water and oil
and bread and wine into signs that impart the grace of God
Himself. So, too, He did in the case of this most common of all
commodities--obscurity. By taking on Himself an obscure life He
wished to show all men that holiness was possible and was easily
attainable in a life known only to God, hidden from the world,
perhaps even despised by arrogant worldlings for its lowly
Christ's obscurity, however, was not only that of an individual; it
was also that of a family. Jesus recognized that a very small
proportion of families would have to undergo persecution similar
to that which beset the Holy Family in those early years, as when
after the divinely foreseen circumstances of the Nativity and the
visit of the Magi there followed the hostility of a jealous king, the
need of flight to a strange land and exile there. Christ was aware of
all this; and although the lessons of His first years were immensely
valuable, nevertheless He willed to approach now closer to the life
of the average family. He approximated this average life so closely
that it would seem St. Luke finds nothing special to relate of it--no
miracles, no preaching, no teaching of new and sublime doctrine,
none of the intense martyrdom of suffering which the Passion and
Crucifixion were later to bring.
How successfully Jesus, Mary, and Joseph played their part in the
humdrum town life of Nazareth can be judged by the incredulous
remarks of their neighbors when later they refused to believe in
the divinity of Christ's mission. "Is not this the carpenter's son? Is
not his mother called Mary?" (Matt. 13:55.)
What, then, does Christ's obscurity mean for us? It means that we
are not to give up striving for a more perfect service of God merely
because our life is ordinary, humble, average.
More important, however, must be our utilization of Christ's
obscurity to resist temptations against trust in God as our loving
Father. Such temptations cleverly allege, "You aren't anyone in
particular--why should God care for you?--you don't have the great
sanctity of Mary and Joseph and the saints--you are living in
family life out in the world, not in a monastery or convent. Why do
you think that Almighty God should have a special place in His
heart for your concerns and your prayers?" The temptation is
insidious. Worse still, it is very, very common. Only God knows
whether or not it succeeds in preventing people who live in the
world from loving Him trustingly and with an open heart.
Christ's obscurity brings to the fore one salient fact: the value of
our life is measured only by what we are in God's sight--not by any
human standard, not even by our "feelings" that we are more or
less progressing in our religious duties. God alone sees our will. He
alone knows our strength and the graces given to help us. He alone
is aware of the full nature of the difficulties that beset us. Hence,
He alone is capable of judging us worthy of reward or punishment.
Fame in the world means absolutely nothing in itself with regard to
our salvation and perfection. How we might use that fame is, of
course, important; but whether or not we are known by millions or
by a handful, our position in God's sight is shielded from the
prying gaze of the world. For God our true value lies in the inner
life of humility, patience, and the other virtues. This is the life
hidden with Christ in God, ever to be cultivated and esteemed
above all else.
The lesson of obscurity is not difficult to understand when applied
in this manner to the difference between worldly and supernatural
standards. More involved (because requiring more supernatural
faith) is the application of obscurity to purely supernatural
matters. For example, a great preacher works many conversions
from his sermons; a radio orator succeeds in spreading universal
good will toward the Church; deathbed repentances and
conversions are multitudinous; huge numbers of people outside
the Church die in apparent good faith, and in all likelihood have
saved their souls by obeying God as their conscience indicated to
them. Who prayed and worked and suffered for all this apostolic
harvest? Christ's merits, of course, primarily brought it about; but
cooperation with grace is also required, and in God's providence
the grace to cooperate with another grace often seems to depend
on the prayer or the good deed of some generous soul, offered for
Do you see now what is meant by "supernatural obscurity"? You
may be living your life in what you think is a very ordinary way. In
God's sight, on the contrary, you are waging a courageous battle
against temptation; you are fulfilling the duties of your state of
life with superior fidelity; and in general you are consistently
carrying out the two great commandments of love of God
manifested in love of neighbor. What of the graces you are
possibly winning for the spread of Christ's spiritual kingdom? The
fact that you may be ignorant of their existence does not nullify
their efficacy, nor does it make your actions less pleasing in God's
sight. In this manner a life that exteriorly appears to be very
ordinary and very average may in reality be highly effective in the
supernatural order. This is the exercise of charity not merely for
the good of the body but also for the benefit of the soul.
Christ our Lord referred to the reward awaiting charity when He
described His position as judge at the great final Judgment: "Come,
blessed of my Father, take possession of the kingdom prepared for
you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry, and you
gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me to drink; I was a
stranger, and you took me in; naked and you covered me; sick and
you visited me; I was in prison, and you came to me.
"Then the just will answer him, saying, `Lord, when did we see
thee hungry and feed thee; or thirsty, and give thee drink? And
when did we see thee a stranger, and take thee in; or naked, and
clothe thee? Or when did we see thee sick or in prison, and come
to thee?' And answering, the King will say to them, `Amen, I say to
you, as long as you did it for one of these, the least of my
brethren, you did it for me' " (Matt. 25:34-40).
Jesus revealed in these words how much good is accomplished
without its recognition in this life. In the case of supernatural
obscurity, where good deeds win graces for the spread of Christ's
kingdom, the application is equally as strong as if those good
deeds were done for the welfare of the bodies instead of the souls
Another benefit to be derived from the sight of Christ's obscurity
is a new motive against failure: a confidence that no failure can
crush. If all our essential value lies only in what we are in God's
sight, then what we are in the sight of the world means nothing in
case we fail, even miserably. True, our feelings may perhaps react
strongly, and our self-appreciation may decline because of our
inability to establish ourselves in social or business prestige; but
basically, deep down in our soul, we possess ourselves in peace.
We cannot lose our trust in God when we lose our fame or fortune,
because we know invincibly that fame and fortune are worthless in
God's reckoning. Men and women with no religion, with no faith in
an all-good God who will never desert them or judge them unfairly-
-these are the ones who, when temporal disaster crushes them,
seek to compensate for their loss by temporarily drowning their
sorrow in sin, or even by cutting off their existence in this world.
How different is the case with the person who recognizes his
obscurity and perceives that his actual success is to be weighed by
what God reads in his soul! A businessman of the author's
acquaintance was an almost complete failure throughout his entire
career. He died too penniless to be a bankrupt. Nonetheless, his
was a holy death, for he had always striven to serve God and his
fellow men, to be a faithful father and husband, a generous
provider for his family. Financially he accomplished nothing.
Again and again throughout the years his best efforts seemed to
amount to a sort of anti-Midas touch that blighted and withered
what had previously been successful business ventures. The secret
of his constant confidence for the future, the hope that buoyed
him up even in his darkest moments, was this knowledge that his
conscience gave him: "What you are in God's sight, counts. What
the world thinks you are, does not count. Try again. God knows
you are trying, and that you are not succeeding, but it is for no
selfishness or sin on your part. Try again." It was this supernatural
faith and trust that not only bore up his morale but even saved his
Such are the lessons of the obscurity of the hidden life. No matter
what the conditions of your life may be, sanctify them by offering
them to God Almighty as so many prayers of adoration,
thanksgiving, reparation, and petition. This, your "hidden life" on
earth, will be the glorious life in God's sight which you will see
credited as merit when your turn comes to stand before the
tribunal of our blessed Lord.
Another great lesson of the Holy Family at Nazareth lay in the
prayer they constantly practiced. Jesus, of course, was God, but in
His created human nature He could and did pray to His Father.
We must always remember in speaking of Jesus that His
Incarnation is a mystery of mysteries, second only to the fact of
the Blessed Trinity in being august and unfathomable. by our
Jesus was divine, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity and God
by nature equal to the Father and the Holy Spirit. He united in
Himself the nature of God and the nature of man. How this was
accomplished we cannot understand. We simply know that it was
done, and that it was by this means that He could pray to God His
Father while being God Himself.
Since the Holy Family observed the Jewish law in its perfection, we
can deduce quite accurately what prayers they recited. The
Psalms, of course, were the favorites. Three times a day Jesus,
Mary, and Joseph said the Tephillah, "The Prayer," consisting of
eighteen long invocations and blessings. Joseph (and later Jesus
when He attained to manhood) was obliged to say the Shema, a
sort of profession of faith in the one true God, twice daily.
A very interesting Jewish custom of prayer that must have been
observed in the house at Nazareth was that of the Mezuzah, "the
doorpost," and the "phylacteries," small square calfskin boxes with
Scripture texts written on parchment inside them.
One of these texts was part of the Shema that Joseph recited:
"Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord. Thou shalt love the
Lord thy God with thy whole heart and with thy whole soul and
with thy whole strength. And these words which I command thee
this day shall be in thy heart; and thou shalt tell them to thy
children, and thou shalt meditate upon them sitting in thy house,
and walking on thy journey, sleeping, and rising. And thou shalt
bind them as a sign on thy hand, and they shall be, and shall move
between thy eyes. And thou shalt write them in the entry, and on
the doors of thy house" (Deut. 6:4-9).
This injunction was taken so literally that Jewish men would bind
the phylacteries on the left arm and the forehead when saying the
prescribed prayers. The Pharisees went much further and strictly
enjoined the constant wearing of ornate phylacteries, but the
common people (among whom St. Joseph would be counted) did
not follow so strained and exaggerated an interpretation of Holy
Scripture. Hence, Joseph probably wore them at prayer time alone.
On the doorpost of the house at Nazareth was fastened a wooden
tube containing a rolled parchment inscribed with the passage
quoted above from the Book of Deuteronomy and another passage
(11:13-21) citing the blessings of serving God. On entering and
leaving the house the members of the Holy Family would piously
touch this Mezuzah, saying, "May God keep my going out and
coming in from now on and forevermore." All this was intended to
show reverence for the word of God.
Such was the vocal and the more or less formal prayer which Jesus,
Mary, and Joseph offered in their home at Nazareth. In their
hearts, however, they prayed always. Just as the Heart of Jesus was
constantly united with His divinity, so were the hearts of Mary and
Joseph so closely bound to God that their every action was a
"But," you say, "how did the Holy Family find time to be ordinary
people, as their neighbors certainly understood them to be, if they
were praying constantly?" The answer is better given by another
question: Why should constant prayer make anyone less
neighborly? As a matter of fact, the difficulty here rests on the
false assumption that prayer necessarily entails many words, a
long face, and an austere disposition.
This is only one of the popular misconceptions of the nature of
prayer. As long as such false ideas might persist, it would be well-
nigh useless to urge the imitation of the spirit of prayer that
prevailed at Nazareth. For this reason and for the sake of
encouraging and advancing those who already pray well, we must
explain in some detail what is meant by genuine prayer.
Volumes have been written on how to pray, yet essentially
everything they have expounded and everything we will describe
here is based on the definition of prayer. In other words, if you are
raising your heart and mind to God, you are praying. Whether you
use words or not, whether you say much or little, you are
genuinely praying if your intention is directed to "talk" to God.
There are countless ways of praying. The misunderstanding of the
true nature of prayer has resulted from an artificial limitation of
its meaning to perhaps one type, namely, vocal prayer. Vocal
prayer is that which follows a set formula, usually composed by
some one else. It has undoubtedly great value, but it is not the
only way of talking to God.
The other type, far more easy to practice at all times and in all
places, is mental prayer. Here we speak to God as friend to friend,
exactly as our heart dictates. There need not even be any words
expressed on our part. For example, you can visit the Blessed
Sacrament and let the good Lord in His holy sacrament "shine" on
you from the Tabernacle. You need say nothing. Merely sit in His
presence, united to Him by the love of your friendship with Him.
Another kind of mental prayer is "contemplation," where you
mentally behold, in the Ignatian application of this word, some
event transpiring in Christ's life. This is a sort of mental moving
Still another type is called "meditation" in the formal meaning of
the word. In meditating you tell God your reaction to what you are
considering. Is it hard or easy? Do you think you would wish to act
that way or differently? Do you need help to do so? Do you wish
you could be better in practicing this virtue or in avoiding that
Then there are those fascinating combinations of vocal and mental
prayer that we call "aspirations" or "ejaculations." Some modern
writers have colorfully described them as "quickies." That is what
they are, for you recite the aspiration so quickly that you don't
have time to be distracted! In a second or two you can say, "Lord, I
love you," or "Jesus, Mary, Joseph, help me always," or "Sacred
Heart of Jesus, I trust in Thee," or "Mary, conceived without sin,
pray for us who have recourse to thee." You can use these
ejaculations in crowded buses and streetcars, out in the open
country or in the busy city, a few times each day, or just as often
as you please, all without the mental fatigue that eventually
results from protracted prayer.
Another method of combining vocal and mental prayer is to recite
slowly to yourself some simple prayer which you like, such as the
"Our Father," the "Hail Mary," or the "Hail, Holy Queen." Say it
lingeringly and rhythmically, perhaps a word for every breath. If
you have leisure and sufficient quiet to attempt more concentrated
prayer, stay on each word of these prayers as long as you find
relish in it.
The essential thing to remember is that prayer is the candid talk of
one friend to another, of yourself to God. While you must, of
course, remain respectful, you should not let your respect frighten
you from being familiar in your prayer. Prayer is something very
private, and you have a right to speak to God in the intimate
relation of creature to Creator, friend to Friend.
Moreover, you should not restrict yourself to the prayer of
petition, that is, asking God for what you require in order to live a
better life spiritually and temporally. Your prayer should have
other purposes also. For example, express your gratitude to God
for the benefits He has bestowed on you, on your family, on the
Church, on our country and the world. Or make reparation to God
for so many sinners who are deliberately offending Him. You can
make further reparation, too, for sins and negligences in your own
These three types of prayer--petition, thanksgiving, and
reparation--are more or less related to the benefits God has given
us. The fourth kind, the prayer of adoration, is in itself more
selfless. When we adore God and praise His goodness, His mercy,
and His justice, we are adoring Him not for what we have received
from Him but for what He is in Himself. On some occasion when
you would like to pray mentally but do not feel inclined to attempt
any particular subject, pay homage to God Himself in the prayer of
adoration. The Divine Office of the Church--its official prayer--
consists mainly of the Psalms, which themselves are made up
largely of sentiments of praise and adoration.
In any discussion concerning prayer the question usually arises,
"How can I pray always? I have necessary occupations to attend to,
I have legitimate recreations and lawful pleasures. How can I pray
while engaged in them?"
Pray by offering these good actions as your prayer. A most
effective practice of this sort is the Morning Offering of the
Apostleship of Prayer. "O Jesus, through the Immaculate Heart of
Mary, I offer Thee my prayers, works, and sufferings of this day
for all the intentions of Thy Sacred Heart, in union with the Holy
Sacrifice of the Mass throughout the world, in reparation for my
sins, for the intentions of all our associates (in the Apostleship of
Prayer), and in particular for the intention selected this month by
our Holy Father, the Pope."
Throughout the day renew this intention occasionally. It can be
done very simply and briefly by some such aspiration as "All for
Thee, O Jesus," or "I wish to do everything for love of Thee, my
What we have said up to this point has pertained chiefly to prayer
on the part of the individual. There is also the most perfect prayer
of all, the Mass, the renewal of Christ's sacrifice on Calvary. In the
Mass we are privileged to unite ourselves with the priest in order
to offer God the spotless sacrifice of adoration, praise, reparation,
and thanksgiving. You will appreciate and relish the Mass much
more deeply if you follow the actions and words of the celebrant
with a missal of your own, containing the translation of all the
prayers said at the altar.
However, for the purpose of this book one group prayer must
receive special emphasis, the family Rosary. The custom of saying
the Rosary privately is most praiseworthy; the practice of the
family recitation is the logical extension of this prayer of Our
Lady, and can hardly be recommended too strongly.
Again and again in crises of the Church the popes have called on
the Queen of the Rosary for help. In fact, the entire history of the
devotion of the Rosary simply repeats how strikingly Mary came to
the aid of the Church on each occasion she was petitioned through
the group recitation of her Rosary.
St. Dominic was the first to preach the Rosary as a successful
spiritual weapon against the Albigensian heresy in the 13th
century. In 1571 the Turks were defeated at Lepanto, and Europe
was thus saved from Mohammedanism at a moment when the
Catholic world was reciting the Rosary in petition for so all-
important a victory. In 1716 the Moslems were turned back in
Hungary, again at a time when the confraternities of the Rosary at
Rome were conducting solemn public prayers for the success of
the Christian cause. In fact, the power of the Rosary so impressed
Pope Leo XIII that during his pontificate he issued twelve
encyclicals in order to urge Catholics all over the world to pray the
Rosary. The fortunes of the Church in those days were in dire and
precarious straits. Leo could think of nothing that was possibly
more efficacious than the Rosary.
In our present day, we, too, together with the Church are passing
through a grave crisis. Family life has been derided, abused, and
neglected to such an extent that some observers think that the
family has already been destroyed. Such a pessimistic outlook we
do not accept; nonetheless it is a timely warning of social
deterioration that must be heeded. The family is the building
block of society, the foundation of our whole modern civilization.
Not only the practice of religion and the advancement of culture,
but our entire modern society together with all the rights of man
as a human being would be wiped out if the family were destroyed
and state nurseries were put in its place.
The attacks have come from without as well as from within. Those
from within the family are the more to be feared. Healthy family
life can always combat successfully external adversaries. But
family life cannot be healthy if divorce, race suicide, and the
shirking of responsibility guide the men and women who are to
bring children into the world and who are to educate them to reach
their eternal destiny by means of a Christian life in this world.
Divorce, race suicide, the shirking of responsibility--these are the
internal enemies so much more devastating than any others can
possibly be. Hence, the practice of the family Rosary has come to
the fore particularly in our times to fight them. The Holy Spirit in
His guidance of the Church has inspired our popes, bishops,
priests, and faithful to pray the Rosary as the most efficacious
means of gaining assistance against the powers of evil
undermining family morality and family existence.
Not only does the family Rosary bring down blessings by way of
Mary's intercession. In itself, looked at from a purely natural point
of view, it is a bond of union. When the members of a family meet
daily for ten to fifteen minutes of common prayer, they are
guaranteed at least one sacrosanct period when business and
social engagements will not interfere with corporate life at home.
This union in prayer links the minds and hearts of all present.
Supernaturally, Christ is among them in a special manner. "Where
two or three are gathered together for my sake, there am I in the
midst of them" (Matt. 18:20).
The Rosary is so powerful a prayer because it depicts the chief
mysteries of our Redemption in a manner most pleasing to Mary
and to God. In the short, easy meditations on each Joyful,
Sorrowful, and Glorious mystery, there stands out the part of Mary
as the humble handmaid of the Lord in whom He accomplished
mighty things. The merits of Our Lady are presented to Jesus again
and again, so that He in His goodness bestows particular graces in
order to honor His mother. She had been all-faithful in her service
of her Creator and Redeemer. With Jesus she cooperated intimately
in the work of His Redemption. So, too, does she cooperate with
Him in intervening to distribute the fruits of His Redemption in
order that it may be more effective.
The very derivation of the name "rosary" indicates the homage of
Our Lady which it embodies. During the Middle Ages as formerly
among the Romans, persons of royal blood wore crowns of flowers
called chaplets. As the custom grew with the passing of centuries,
the chaplets became crowns of gold presented to kings and
princes as tokens of submission and honor. In Mary's case the
rosary is a triple chaplet--three crowns made up of roses of Hail
Mary's and Our Father's, during the recitation of which the story of
Mary's part in our Redemption is lovingly and gratefully recalled.
At Nazareth the Rosary, of course, could not be said. Something
greater was done. In the hidden life of obscurity, prayer, and work,
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were drawing the pattern for every future
family--a pattern which all members of every Catholic family
should examine and imitate as from eldest to youngest they recite
their family Rosary together.
Obscurity, prayer, work--these were the three great characteristics
of the Hidden Life. We have already seen the lesson taught us by
the obscurity and prayer of the Holy Family at Nazareth. There
remains a final summation--the dignity of labor.
To the ancient pagans manual labor was disgraceful, but to the
Christian work is ennobling. The lesson of the Holy Family is too
clear to deny. God Himself in human form took up the trade of a
carpenter. Mary His mother performed all the household tasks just
like every other wife and mother of her time. Joseph supported
Jesus and Mary by his earnings as village carpenter. That is the
true picture. We cannot improve on the facts, the reality. The Holy
Family engaged in labor; therefore, no one can think himself
degraded by engaging in labor. On the contrary, if we offer our
work as prayer, we raise its value even higher. Pope Pius X
composed an indulgenced prayer to St. Joseph, patron of working
people, that expresses concisely the Christian attitude toward
labor. It summarizes also for us the lessons of the Holy Family's
work at Nazareth.
Glorious St. Joseph, model of all who devote their lives to labor,
obtain for me the grace to work in the spirit of penance in order
thereby to atone for my many sins; to work conscientiously,
setting devotion to duty in preference to my own whims; to work
with thankfulness and joy, deeming it an honor to employ and to
develop by my labor the gifts I have received from God; to work
with order, peace, moderation, and patience, without ever
shrinking from weariness and difficulties; to work above all with a
pure intention and with detachment from self, having always
before my eyes the hour of death and the accounting which I must
then render of time ill spent, of talents wasted, of good omitted,
and of vain complacency in success, which is so fatal to the work
All for Jesus, all through Mary, all in imitation of you, O Patriarch
Joseph! This shall be my motto in life and in death, Amen.
(500 days' indulgence, S. Paen. Ap., 28 Mar. 1933.)
Reluctantly we close the chapter on the hidden life of obscurity
and prayer and work and intimate family union at Nazareth. The
years are passing on, and the paths of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph will
soon begin to separate. The years of preparation for Jesus are over.
God's work of redemption must be accomplished.
CHAPTER TEN: SEPARATION
IT IS quite certain that St. Joseph died before Christ began His
public life. When the infuriated Nazarenes tried to ridicule the
sublimity of Christ's doctrine by naming His living relatives and
thus showing how common He was, they neglected to mention His
foster father (Matt. 13:55). Our strongest argument, however, is
drawn from Christ's words on the cross. To St. John He said, "Son,
behold thy mother." And to Our Lady, 'Woman, behold thy son"
(John 19:27). It was Joseph's right as well as his obligation to care
for Mary. The only reasonable explanation for Christ's action of
commending His mother to St. John must be that Joseph had
already passed away, to await the day of his resurrection with
By reason of the fact that he died in the presence of Jesus and
Mary, Joseph has rightly been chosen by the popes as the patron of
the dying. Because of his closeness to the Son and the mother, he
has the greatest intercessory power with them; and because of the
circumstances of his death--in the arms of Jesus and Mary--his
patronage is doubly fitting.
Joseph's death before the public life began was providential. Had
he lingered on in his position as "father" of Jesus, he might have
hindered the effectiveness of Christ's preaching and Christ's
manifest claims to be divine. With Joseph's passing the holy trinity
on earth was temporarily separated. For Jesus and Mary it meant
the end of the quiet, long years of calm and happiness spent with
him. The moment for Christ's great redemptive act was close now,
and with it there also approached the initiation of Mary into her
vocation as co-redemptrix, queen of martyrs, and mother of the
What a farewell--an au revoir in the strictest sense--that was at
Nazareth! The work of Joseph the just man was completed, and
with the absolute conformity of his will to the will of his foster
Son, he wished that there might be accomplished in him only that
which would further the cause of saving souls through Christ's
atonement. This was the moment, too, when Joseph received from
the lips of the Mother of God and from God Himself the words of
gratitude for all he had done for them. There were no regrets, no
fruitless bitter sorrow. It was the model deathbed, a lesson for all
Joseph must have mused gently over the past. Seemingly there had
been nothing in his life to mark him as outstanding. He had been
just another citizen of the Empire, to his fellow townsmen, "only
Joseph." A good neighbor, a quiet fellow, one who would help in
time of need--yes, he had been all of these, but thoroughly
ordinary, as ordinary as any man of Nazareth. That was how he
thought of himself.
After all, of what could he boast? Of money? Hardly that, for with
all his diligence he was able at best to keep his family in moderate
circumstances. His royal blood? No, he was too candid to bask
mentally in the long-vanished glory of the stock of David. He knew
that his worth lay in what he actually was, not in what his
ancestors had been.
How could he ever forget how it had all begun! In that stalwart
early manhood he had been a suitor for the hand of Mary when he
first realized that a special Providence was gently changing the
course of his life. There was the espousal, the agonizing
perplexity, the angel's revelation bringing floods of peace, the
virginal marriage to the very Mother of God.
And how those next events stood out, vivid and fresh in his
memory! The manger in the cave at Bethlehem, the hasty departure
by night for Egypt, the careful return to Nazareth, the
heartbreaking separation in the Temple incident, and then the
years of obscurity and labor that were so happily spent in the
company of Mary and Jesus.
Always deep down in his heart he had realized that he possessed a
treasure infinite, a treasure whose secret he was chosen to guard.
Mother and Son had been entrusted to him from on high. He,
Joseph the carpenter of Nazareth, was the shadow of the Eternal
Father on earth. On his labor had depended the life and the well-
being of the Word Incarnate. And yet--he was always only Joseph,
in himself nothing, but by some unfathomable design of God
raised to the position most privileged among all men of all time.
His own strong, toil-worn hands had guided the fingers of Him who
had fashioned the universe. He had seen the lesson those other
hands were teaching for all ages--work is good, work has dignity,
work can be made a meritorious prayer. Could he lead others to
imitate that example of his Son?
And here, as he lay dying, he saw the end of his task on earth. In
obscurity he had always lived, in even greater obscurity he was
passing away. In the life of the Church his memory was to remain
equally obscure for a thousand years until in God's own time,
when the doctrines of Christ as God and Mary as Virgin Mother
were clearly established in the minds of men, he would begin to
appear in his true worth. But he would always be "only Joseph,"
lovable, the friend of all.... "Jesus, Mary! Mary, Jesus!" ...The end
The house was silent. The two who remained saw their task yet
before them. It was the will of the Father in heaven, and that was
all that counted.
So, too, in your family life, there must inevitably come a day when
you or your loved ones will see the hand of death take a child, a
husband and father, a wife and mother. In the first shock of
bereavement the dull sense of emptiness may perhaps lead to a
deeper sense of hopelessness.
But Jesus and Mary and Joseph have gone before. Death is the end
of the time of testing, the completion of the life that must have
sorrows mixed with its joys. The pilgrimage is over for the soul
that has passed from the shadows of faith to the clear light of
For those who remain behind, the house is silent. They see their
task yet before them. It is the will of the Father in heaven, and that
is all that counts.
St. Joseph's happy death can lead our thoughts in only one
direction: our own preparation for a happy and holy death when
our time comes. In an earlier chapter we touched on the peace
which a well-lived life brings at the moment it draws to a close.
The courageous and steadfast fulfillment of your family
obligations will bring about a tranquil conscience which will
withstand all worries and fears at the hour you realize that your
pilgrimage on earth is soon to end.
For you as a Catholic, however, another factor will be most
important in helping you to die well as you have lived well--your
use of the sacraments, particularly Holy Eucharist, Penance, and
Extreme Unction. In fact, St. Joseph's intercession often shows
itself most strongly in the manner in which Joseph's friends are
provided with the last sacraments to be with them on their last
In general, our Catholics are well aware of the doctrine relating to
the Blessed Sacrament and its marvelous effects. Thanks to the
decree of Pope Pius X in 1905, frequent Communion has become a
custom, and daily Communion commonplace among the faithful.
But with regard to Penance and Extreme Unction, especially as
sacraments preparing for a holy death, rather widespread
misunderstanding exists which hinders the full utilization of their
sacramental benefits. Hence, several cardinal points must be
clarified concerning these two sacraments.
Above all else Penance is the sacrament of peace, because outside
of it, ordinarily no greater assurance can be obtained on this earth
that God has forgiven sin and has completely restored the sinner
to His friendship. Christ our Lord instituted the sacrament of
Penance primarily in order to remit all serious sins committed
after Baptism. He also wished that the sacrament exercise a
secondary effect as well. When received by a person who has no
mortal sins to confess, Penance bestows an increase of sanctifying
grace and grants extra special helps of actual grace to combat
temptations and faults.
One misunderstanding regarding Penance is that it cannot be
received unless the penitent has committed mortal sin since the
last confession. In reality, such is not the case. It is sufficient
either to mention a few venial sins of which you are aware, or to
make a general accusation of some sin from your past life (and
here, too, a venial sin is sufficient). In this manner you are able to
gain the special graces which only Penance can impart.
Of course, all mortal sins committed since the preceding
confession must be mentioned, although if any are forgotten in
good faith, they are indirectly forgiven by being included in the
act of contrition of the penitent and in the absolution of the priest.
If later they come to mind, they should be specified in the next
confession not in order to be forgiven (for they have already been
remitted), but in order that the law of Christ concerning the
confession of mortal sins might be fulfilled. This is why mortal
sins are called "necessary matter" for confession in distinction to
venial sins, which are called merely "sufficient matter."
Although at least one venial sin must be confessed in order to
provide this "sufficient matter" (if there is nothing serious to
mention), there is no obligation to confess all venial sins inasmuch
as they can be forgiven outside of the sacrament by means of an
act of contrition, the offering of other prayers, or the performance
of good works. Nonetheless, all venial sins are forgiven in every
good confession provided that the penitent includes them at least
in a general, implicit fashion in his declaration and acts of
contrition, including his purpose of amendment.
By submitting venial sins to the tribunal of Penance, part at least
of the temporal punishment is remitted. Venial sins do not incur
any eternal punishment because while they are flaws in our
friendship with God, they by no means constitute the wanton
ingratitude and treason which we call mortal sin. In the present
state of human nature our faith tells us that no one can go through
life without committing venial sin, unless he or she has been given
a very special grace. Our Blessed Lady certainly enjoyed this
privilege, and we piously believe, St. Joseph. In our own case,
however, we know how easily we fail. Anger, jealousy,
manifestations of selfishness, rash judgments, hesitation in
repelling temptation--these are some of the faults that mar our
perfection but can be gradually eliminated from our conduct.
There is one particular circumstance which calls for explicit
mention. Let us suppose that by some misfortune serious sin has
been committed and confession at the moment is impossible. Must
mortal sin remain on the soul?
God in His goodness has given the weakness of our human nature
a first-aid remedy even in this instance. An act of perfect
contrition will remit mortal sin provided there is included at least
implicitly the desire to receive the sacrament of Penance and thus
have the mortal sin forgiven officially. Such serious sins must be
mentioned in the next confession. To make such an act of
contrition, we must regret having sinned because we have
offended God Himself, who in Himself is all-good, all-worthy of
our love. In other words the motive for perfect contrition is love of
God. This is more than is required for confession, where only an
act of "attrition" is requisite--that is, sorrow for sin arising from a
motive of fear of punishment or detestation of the malice of sin in
itself. But this sorrow is not to be without wholesome
acknowledgment of, and reliance on, God's mercy and love.
Such are the general principles regarding the use of Penance as a
remote preparation for a happy and holy death. The frequent
reception of the sacrament throughout your life will deepen ever
more and more the serenity that characterizes the children of God
and the adopted brothers and sisters of Jesus. In a sense, Penance
is always a "last sacrament" because it provides a fund of
supernatural peace to offset any worry or fear that may arise when
the unpredictable moment of death approaches. Sins from one's
past life are so positively forgiven when subjected to the
sacrament of Peace, that years later there can be absolutely no
ground for umeasiness concerning them.
The misunderstandings regarding Extreme Unction are even more
erroneous than those concerning Penance. Very many Catholics
dread the moment when the priest must be called to administer
Extreme Unction, as if by that very fact they or their loved ones
will necessarily die. Often they delay the moment of reception as
long as possible, so that a recovery is no longer to be hoped for
and sometimes death has already supervened.
Extreme Unction has been called the "cinderella of the sacraments"
for the reason that it is associated in the popular mind with
inevitable death. Yet how different and consoling is the true
doctrine! As the Church teaches us, Christ wished to provide
salutary remedies against all the wiles of the enemy of human
nature. Satan utilizes every occasion throughout the whole of life
in order to attempt to trap souls; but at no time is he more active
than at that instant when he perceives that his last chance of
seducing a faithful Christian is at hand.
The main purpose of Extreme Unction is to fortify the soul at this
critical moment of serious illness. In addition, the sacrament
forgives sin and remits temporal punishment just as does Penance,
in case the sick person cannot confess sins for which he or she is
sorry. Extreme Unction also cleanses away the "remnants of sin."
Finally, if it be expedient for the soul, Extreme Unction restores
even bodily health. Daily experience confirms this teaching of the
Church, for apparently desperate cases yield to treatment on many
occasions only after Extreme Unction has been administered. The
testimony of non-Catholic as well as Catholic doctors on this score
is not difficult to obtain.
All these effects are indicated in the words of St. James, who in his
Epistle promulgated what Christ had previously instituted. "Is any
one among you sick?" he writes. "Let him bring in the presbyters
(priests) of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him
with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save
the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he be in sins,
they shall be forgiven him" (James 5:14, 15).
As a practical rule in every household, the priest should be
summoned as soon as there is a prudently probable danger of
death. The sacrament will by no means make death inevitable.
Instead, it may effect a cure of the body, if expedient as it will
impart strength to the soul. And if God wills that the soul should
now pass on to its judgment and reward, the reception of Extreme
Unction will guarantee confidence in God's mercy as well as
sentiments of love, fervor, and ineffable peace. This, the moral
certainty of possessing sanctifying grace and merit in God's sight,
is truly what we call a happy death. It will be our means of
imitating the death of Joseph in the arms of Jesus and Mary.
AFTER Joseph passed away, the Two quietly went about their daily
tasks, realizing how soon they would be parted. During those days
before His leave-taking Christ supported His mother by the
products of the carpentry Joseph had taught Him. These were
precious days; and Jesus and Mary, intensely and perfectly human
as they were, appreciated the last quiet moments mother and Son
would spend together before the shadow of the cross became the
Finally there came the morning of departure. Jesus was to leave
out-of-the-way Nazareth to meet the hostility of the world in
founding a Kingdom of God that would last into eternity. Mary
understood all that this meant. From her long years of closest
contact with God, her Son, her heart was one with His. She knew
that as His mother she would be closest to Him in His suffering.
But all this did not matter. She loved Jesus, loved Him as only the
most exquisite person created by God could love Him. Her union
with Him consoled Him far more than any other creature could do.
In her love for Jesus she did not forget that after the Passion and
death would come the Resurrection, the triumph of the cross and
of Christian truth over Satan and the self-indulgence and rebellion
that is sin.
She would visit Jesus occasionally while He was preaching and
teaching and healing during His public life, but never again on
this earth would she have the unutterable joy of living constantly
in His presence, day and night, under the same roof, sharing the
same table, teaching Him in whom are all the treasures of wisdom
These years at Nazareth with Joseph and Jesus had been Mary's
period of consolation, given her for the purpose of strengthening
her for the awful moment when the full weight of the burden of the
Queen of Martyrs would descend on her soul. It was the love of the
Giver which she desired at all times, and in His present gifts of
peace she could see only Him.
After Jesus' departure the little house at Nazareth would be empty,
the memory of its two menfolk recalled constantly by the sight of
the things they had made and handled. Mary would be left alone
with her thoughts, her work, her prayers. Yet would she ever be
really alone? No, in those prayers she would constantly unite
herself with Jesus, her Son and her God. He would be doing the
work for which He had come down to earth. She knew that now;
and there was not that sickening uncertainty and dread that had
struck St. Joseph and herself when the Child had been lost in the
Temple some twenty years ago.
Would the Three ever be united again? There was no doubt of that.
In God's own time Jesus and Mary and Joseph would transplant the
spirit of their home at Nazareth to a new home in eternity, and the
Holy Family would live together in heaven, always the model of
family life, watching over fathers and mothers and children,
encouraging them, loving them. But that was not yet to be. The
moment of farewell had come...now.
We leave the final leave-taking of Jesus and Mary to themselves. It
is a scene too intimate, almost too ethereal in its winsomeness to
attempt to portray, even inadequately at best. In the privacy of our
hearts, however, we kneel close to the Two, just where they want
us ever to be. There is a last affectionate embrace of mother and
Son, no weeping for sorrow on their part. But as we ourselves look
on, the poignant beauty of Mary and Jesus overwhelms us, and we
can look no more for our tears.
Jesus turns, walks for the last time through that doorway through
which long ago He had taken His youthful steps. But now, carrying
the load of punishment for the world's sins, He gravely wends His
way down the narrow, crooked street. At its bend, as He turns
toward the open road and the world beyond, He waves to His
mother. She stands in the doorway, waves back. She stands...our
thoughts look ahead.... "At the cross of Christ, her station keeping,
stood His mother, close to Jesus to the last."
Our sketch of the family life of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph is ended.
In your own life by your frequent meditation on the Holy Family
you can extend their lessons further so that you imitate them more
closely and love them more dearly. And you can offer them
yourselves--your husband or wife, your children, your family--in
your life consecrated to the Holy Family of Nazareth.
"O Jesus, our most loving Redeemer, who having come to enlighten
the world with Your teaching and example, willed to pass the
greater part of Your life humbly and in subjection to Mary and
Joseph in the poor home of Nazareth, thus sanctifying the Family
that was to be an example for all Christian families, graciously
take to Yourself our family as it dedicates and consecrates itself to
You this day. Defend us, guard us, and establish among us Your
holy fear, true peace, and harmony in Christian love; in order that
by conforming ourselves to the divine pattern of Your family all of
us without exception may be able to attain to eternal happiness.
"Mary, dear Mother of Jesus and our Mother, by your kindly
intercession make this our humble offering acceptable in the sight
of Jesus, and obtain for us His graces and blessings.
"O Saint Joseph, most holy Guardian of Jesus and Mary, help us by
your prayers in all our spiritual and temporal necessities; that so
we may be enabled to praise our divine Saviour Jesus, together
with Mary and you for all eternity."
(Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory be to the Father, thrice. 500 days'
indulgence S. Paen. Ap., 20 Oct. 1935.)