Here’s the famous opening line of Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” As we celebrate the feast of the Holy Family this Sunday, we might ponder: Is there a connection between a happy family and a holy one … and can that connection help turn an unhappy family into a happy one?
Holiness is the perfection of charity, and the members of the Holy Family manifest their holiness in the love they show to God and to each other.
St. Joseph: Hope
St. Joseph models the indispensable role of self-surrender in a family’s holiness and happiness. St. Joseph wanted to put God’s plan before his own, living the providence of God as his priority and hope. St. Paul VI wrote:
Joseph’s fatherhood is expressed concretely in his having made his life a service, a sacrifice to the mystery of the Incarnation and to the redemptive mission connected with it … in making a total gift of self, of his life and work; in having turned his human vocation to domestic love into a superhuman oblation of self, an oblation of his heart and all his abilities into love placed at the service of the Messiah growing up in his house.
St. Joseph is a holy father. “Joseph not only had the name of father of Jesus,” notes St. John Damascene, “but he also had the reality of it, as much as any man could.” But the fatherhood of Joseph was not according to his own conception.
Joseph is father in the supernatural order, not according to nature, but according to the spirit. He is father in the most noble, most sublime and divine sense. The bond which unites him with his august Son is more and, therefore, more intimate and stronger than a physical bond (Bishop Giacomo Sinibaldi, +1928).
As J.R.R. Tolkien observed, “The link between father and son is not only of the perishable flesh: it must have something of aeternitas about it.” The holy abandonment of Joseph made that link of aeternitas a reality.
In fact, what began in Nazareth is meant to continue for all time. “The marriage of Mary and Joseph,” says St. Albert the Great, “was ordained in order to make all people regard St. Joseph as their father, even as they recognize Mary as their Mother.” St. Teresa of Avila agrees: “Just as St. Joseph, having the title of father and being Jesus’ guardian, could give Jesus commands, so now in heaven Jesus carries out all the petitions that Joseph puts before him.”
The Blessed Mother: Faith
St. John Paul II emphasizes that “Mary is the Theotokos [God-Bearer], not only because she conceived and gave birth to the Son of God, but also because she accompanied him in his human growth.” The holiness with which the Mother of God believed and lived her faith helped her Son’s growth like nothing else.
Caryll Houselander reflects on the holy Motherhood of Mary:
It would have been unbearable to hold that Infant Son in her arms knowing that he must go away to a life of suffering and a cruel death, were it not for her faith in his heavenly Father; were it not for her certainty that the hands of God would always be holding him and that God’s hands, incredible though it seemed, would hold him even more tenderly, even more securely, than hers. This knowledge is the necessity for every mother’s peace.
The Blessed Mother communicated that certainty to her Son. In looking to his Mother at the wedding feast of Cana, Jesus received from her holy intervention renewed ardor to carry out his mission. The night before he died, could it be that Jesus found the strength to pray Not my will but yours be done by calling to mind how his Mother would pray every day, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word? And in the Lord’s words Behold, your Mother, the crucified Jesus shares with us, not just Mary’s maternity but, the very consolation he himself receives from the holiness of his Mother.
Maybe St. Paul learned these lines from the Blessed Virgin Mary — they bespeak the Mother of God’s singular holiness:
I kneel before the Father,
from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named,
that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith;
that you may know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge,
so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God (see Eph 3:14-19).
The Child Jesus: Love
Happy families are happy because they have found a love that enables them to rise above the things that make people unhappy: pettiness, selfishness, resentment, envy, and all other things that poison human relations. The Holy Family is holy because they possess that Love in a permanent way. What makes the Holy Family holy is having Jesus Christ as the center of their life.
Every holy family embraces a Presence given by the mercy of God, and lives by the power of that Presence.
In the words of Mother Elvira Petrozzi (+2023):
Even if the journey is an uphill climb at the beginning, we know it can be done if we know how to stay on our knees facing the One Who speaks to us, Who comforts us, Who reproaches us, Who welcomes us, Who lifts us up and Who is in the voice of our conscience. If we let Christ dwell in us, he can heal our wounds, transform our fragility, and illuminate our hearts and minds with the light of his truth. He will melt the deepest “me” to recreate our new “us,” original, unique, and unrepeatable. This, then, is the Christian family.
Find his series of brief reflections on prayer here.
And his new series on the Eucharist here.