The Catholic Letter

Catholic Help With Marriages And Families

The Holy Family

Throughout history, art has used religious events and themes as subject matter; or rather, humans have been compelled to show religious events or persons in art. By "art" here I mean both true art and "pop" art, including holiday decorations. The depictions of scenes from the lives of biblical characters (particularly that of Christ) may hold beauty, or even serve as aids to the contemplation of sacred things. But the depictions themselves are generally not to be taken at face value as accurate representations.

For example, most artists who have painted the Last Supper have painted Jesus and the Apostles in garb that was contemporary to the artist, rather than that which would have been worn during Jesus' time on earth. The same is true of depictions of the Madonna.

The Nativity

Consider also depictions of the Nativity: Much of it is derived from our tradition of celebrating the Birth of Christ in December, just after the start of Winter; however, there is no biblical or historical evidence to suggest that the event actually occurred during the Winter. Furthermore, while many popular displays of the Nativity include the three Magi from the east, it is certain that they were not present on the night of Christ's birth; it is probable that they arrived after Joseph and Mary had made a life for themselves in Bethlehem; and it is quite possible that their arrival was after Jesus was old enough to have started toddling around (perhaps even a year old, or more.)

However, in painting the Holy Family, there is one thing that artists have generally gotten correct.

In nearly every painting or drawing of the Holy Family, Mary's attention is focused is on the Christ child, and Joseph's on either Mary or the child or both.

Why This is Important

There are two senses in which this represents an example for our own lives. One is that our attention should be focused on Christ, and that a certain way to keep it focused on Christ is to train it on Mary, His mother. The other sense is found in viewing the Holy Family as a family, and modeling one's own role as a parent on Joseph's and Mary's example.

Mary's commission on earth was her Son. Her role in the history of salvation and in God's plan was to bear and raise Jesus in preparation for the completion of His own mission. Joseph's commission is the care of Mary and of Jesus during His time on earth.

How This Translates to Us

A father's job is to see to the spiritual and material welfare of his wife and children. The mother's job, in turn, is to raise her husband's children. To see that they are raised in the Faith. To (as well as she can) bring her children up to know, love, and serve God in this world, so that they may be happy with Him in the next.

In considering parents as parents, perhaps it’s obvious that the children must be the focus of those roles. What is less obvious is that as spounses, a couple should also dedicate themselves to their responsibilities as parents. This is the practical meaning of the Catholic belief that marriage was instituted for the purpose of procreating and raising children.

Now the terms "husband" and "wife" denote roles that are defined in reference to each other rather than in reference to children. But spouses should nonetheless see the upbringing of their children as their highest responsibilities and the ultimate fulfillment of their duties to each other. Thus, a husband ought to expect his wife's focus to be their children, and not himself. They are the task to which he should direct her.

This is the model shown in most depictions of the Holy Family; if we follow this model in our own families, then it is also a model for a successful--that is to say, a holy--family.