The Word Encountered
The Holy Family
“You have nothing to fear.”
If anything, Christianity—and especially Catholicism—takes human flesh seriously. Our central mystery is the Incarnation —God’s “enfleshment,” the necessary condition for the life and teachings of Jesus, his redemptive death, and his glorious resurrection.
God marries our human flesh and finiteness. In Jesus the eternal Word of God becomes wombed in time. Thus, we who bear his name and live his life are a people who see the transcendent in the particularities of names, places, historical events.
To others, our faith and practice may seem embarrassingly concrete and physical.
I remember a non-Christian woman, after weighing the possibility of becoming Catholic, saying to me, “But it seems all so primitive, so fleshy.”
It is strange, when you think of it. We celebrate conceptions, circumcisions, and purifications; we ritualize marriage so highly that some of those who have left our communion are struck by the leanness, even barrenness, of some other marriage ceremonies. Births and deaths we linger and pray and play over. Food and blood characterize our Eucharists.
It is unsettling for many—and sometimes for us—that God would penetrate and inhabit our ordinariness. It might be more reassuring if our Baby-God had sprung fully matured from the head of Zeus, instead of appearing in the midst of such inadequacy and vulnerability. Sure, we have the angels, but they tell us merely to “fear not.” And they point, like the star, to things so utterly undramatic and common as a makeshift bed and plain people.
Even early pseudodocuments of Jesus’ birth and childhood seem uncomfortable with the common condition of the “baby Jesus.” They would have this infant more splendiferous, this child more ominously powerful, someone shooting lightning bolts from his fingers.
And yet the plain humanity of Christmas is what it is all about, our lives and God’s. In the last analysis we are as defenseless as a child before the great forces of time and consciousness. What is more, we are reminded that our very God, as well, is somehow like a child, defenseless before us. Perhaps that is why the heavenly advice so often given in the infancy narratives is “fear not.”
It is fitting that the holiness of the family also be celebrated at this time. For it is only by the ordinariness of being born, nurtured, and taught, so frail and dependent upon those who have welcomed us into their lives, that we ever grow in strength and grace.
God enters these intimacies, too, just as surely as God wants entry into all of human history. And so the wisdom of the father and the authority of the mother and reverence of the child reveal the splendor. Sometimes the wise old ones in our midst, like Simeon, help us name the glory. Other times, it is the prophetic ancient, like Anna, who sees the truth of our ordinary radiance.
Paul reminds us that the virtues of daily life—kindness, thankfulness, patience, and forbearance—embody our good and gracious God, who has willed to dwell in us. Our submission to each other, our love, our care lest the frail among us lose heart, is the making, once again, of the Word into our flesh.
John Kavanaugh, SJ
**From Saint Louis University