The Holy Family had a rough start, don’t you think?
To begin with, it almost ended before it started. Mary was found to be with child, in a pregnancy planned by God but unplanned by men. So “Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly” (Mt 1:20). But he was guided by an angel to take Mary as his wife, and the Lord’s plan continued.
Then there is the Christmas story itself. Jesus’s birth coincided with a census, forcing Mary to bear her child away from the comforts and safety of home. That’s terrible timing, from a human perspective, but it fulfilled the words of the prophet inspired by God: “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah … from you shall come a ruler who will govern my people Israel” (Mt 2:6). And not only was the Holy Family away from home, they were alone and in dire need. Mary delivered Jesus in a stable and laid him in a manger, a feeding trough for animals. Thus the three members of the Holy Family were first united in poverty, with only each other for comfort.
But then there were the visits, three of them. First came the shepherds, telling tales of heavenly hosts breaking out into joyful hymns. Like Mary and Joseph, these men were poor and outcast—perhaps there was comfort here, and an assurance that all was going according to plan. But what was that plan?
The second visit must have been bewildering. Out of the east came the Magi. Wise and wealthy, they appear according to heavenly movements, somehow aware of and seeking the birth of this child. What an odd mixture of poverty and wealth, power and weakness, wisdom and confusion! What gifts! Gold for a king, and incense for a deity. And, chillingly, myrrh for a newborn. For myrrh is used, among other things, to anoint the bodies of the dead (see Jn 19:39).
Death would indeed pursue this child, with the third and unwanted visit. The local king, hearing rumors of the birth of a new king and jealously guarding his petty power, sought to kill the newborn Jesus. He was indiscriminate in his violence and vented his anger on every infant in the region. “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more” (Mt 2:18). But once again Joseph was guided by an angel, and the Holy Family became exiles in a strange land.
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were subject to many trials, and the Holy Family was no stranger to sufferings. Somehow this was all guided by God’s providential hand, the author of every circumstance. It’s disconcerting, isn’t it? Yet perhaps it’s not surprising, for God came to save, and he saves by his own suffering and death. The only way to salvation is through Calvary, and the image of the cross is stamped on every moment and aspect of Christ’s life, including his family.
If Christ loves us and if he seeks to fashion his image in our hearts, should we be surprised if our own lives are no different?
Image: George Hitchcock, The Flight into Egypt (detail)