Little is known about the hidden life of the Holy Family. In several verses over a couple chapters across the Gospels, the first thirty years of Jesus’ life before His public ministry are summarized. By the third chapters in both Matthew and Luke’s Gospels, we’ve already moved past Christ’s upbringing and are on to John the Baptist preparing the way for Him, the Messiah. Mark and John begin their Gospels with John baptizing Jesus and revealing Him as the Son of God already within chapter one. Yet the lack of writings on the time of His formative years has no bearing on their relevance. We shouldn’t assume that they were somehow not important. Rather, the messages of the Gospel are focused on revealing all that those critical years molded the Son of God to be and do—why He was sent to us—our Salvation. Jesus Christ lived, taught, and restored others by grace and power of His Father, drawing upon everything that had prepared Him in the first thirty years of His life.
Just last month—since June was the month dedicated to the Sacred Heart, the core devotion of our ministry, during the year of our “His Heart, my Home” theme—we did a series of online talks devoted to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. To launch that “Saints of the Sacred Heart” series, I gave the first talk on the Spanish visionary, Sr. Josefa Menendez. In the weeks leading up to that talk, I prepared by reading “The Way of Divine Love,” her biography and the messages that Christ (along with Mary, St. John the Evangelist, and others) entrusted to her regarding His Heart through many apparitions. One of the many profound messages of Christ to Josefa that I didn’t get to share in that brief hour inspired the topic of this blog. Under the heading, “Do Men Know?”, from June 10-14, 1923, Jesus pulled back the veil to reveal a small glance into the hiddenness of the Holy Family in Nazareth over 2,000 years ago.
“The Father gives His Son, the Son sacrifices His glory. He comes to earth not as an all-powerful Lord and Master, but in poverty as a servant and as a child.
“The life He led on earth is known to you all.
“You know how from the first moment of the Incarnation I submitted to all human afflictions. In My childhood I endured cold, hunger, poverty, and persecution.
“In My life of labor, how often humiliation and contempt were meted out to the carpenter’s son. How often after a hard day’s work we, My foster-father and I, found that we had earned hardly sufficient to support us… and this I continued for thirty long years.
“Then, forgoing the sweet company of My Mother, I devoted Myself to the task of making My heavenly Father known. I went about teaching men that God is Love.
“I went about doing good to bodies as well as souls: to the sick I gave back their health; the dead I raised to life; and to souls?… Ah! To souls I restored liberty… that liberty which they had lost through sin, and I opened to them the gates of their everlasting home—Heaven.
“Then came the hour when to win salvation for them the Son of God willed to surrender life itself.
“And how did He die? Was He surrounded by friends?… Acclaimed as a benefactor?… Beloved ones, you know that the Son of God did not will to die thus. He who had preached nothing but love was the victim of hatred… He who had brought peace to the world was treated most cruelly… He who came to bring men freedom was imprisoned, bound, ill-used, calumniated, and finally died on a cross between two thieves… contemned, abandoned, abject and despoiled of everything.
“It was thus He surrendered Himself for man’s salvation. It was thus He accomplished the work for which He had voluntarily left His Father’s glory. Man was sick and wounded, and the Son of God came down to him. He not only restored fallen man to life, but earned for him both strength and power to acquire in this life the treasures of eternal beatitude.” (“The Way of Divine Love”)
Considering that God’s Son entering into our humanity could have been done in whatever form or fashion desired, it is hard to conceive how extraordinary yet completely ordinary it all was. It was not a spectacular descension from Heaven, “Here I am to save the race!” but rather one bafflingly humble act after another, beginning with choosing the young virgin Mary, and her betrothed husband, Joseph, a carpenter who is never attributed a single word in the Scriptures. Sacrificing everything, God took flesh like us, beginning as a powerless infant born in an animal’s trough because His parents were required to travel yet there was no room for Him anywhere else. Given the choice of association with any family throughout history, Jesus came from a troubled genealogy, born into a poor yet loving, faithful family.
Jesus knows how it felt to be cold, hungry, to work very hard yet remain poor, and often be humiliated and persecuted. As my husband continues to work on setting up his woodworking shop, I can’t help but think of the long, exhausting hours they spent together laboring in unseen ways. Yet all that work bore greater lessons, using their hands and hearts to perform countless little acts with great love over many years. Those sacrifices in small things day after day, year after year, helped Him to later embrace the greatest sacrifice of all. Jesus had not just witnessed Joseph laying down His life for them, but had years of practicing doing it Himself.
I find it of great personal interest that Joseph was called Jesus’ foster father, not His earthly dad or just his adopted father. For context, “in ancient times in the East the institution of adoption was very common, more so than today.” (Opus Dei) That choice of title strikes my heart anew as my husband and I have been discerning fostering to adopt children for years, and now feel like this is God’s timing for us to respond to that call. When I think of the impact that St. Joseph had on Christ, it gives me greater peace and reverence for this difficult and important vocation. After all, foster parenting was integral to forming Jesus, the man and the Messiah.
“Fathers are not born, but made. A man does not become a father simply by bringing a child into the world, but by taking up the responsibility to care for that child. Whenever a man accepts responsibility for the life of another, in some way he becomes a father to that person” (Apostolic Letter Patris corde).
What a daunting task to be given, to father the Messiah—to live, serve, and protect the only two sinless people in all human history. While we know little about St. Joseph from the Scriptures, we know He did not shirk that great responsibility, and was a man of remarkable character, faithfulness, love, and obedience to have accomplished that in His lifetime. While it’s historically unclear exactly how and when Joseph died, various traditions hold that it occurred when Jesus was an adolescent, perhaps in 18 or 19 AD.
Hearing Christ’s lament in “The Way of Divine Love” about “foregoing the sweet company of My Mother” was precious, as I hadn’t considered how much that would have grieved him. Having lived with and loved that perfect mother for thirty years, it had to be hard! Considering His first recorded miracle was in response to her urging at the wedding feast at Cana, how He began His public ministry reveals more than the considerable impact she had as His Mother, but her understanding of His Messianic Mission and His need to move forward with it (NC Register).
The vital connection between waiting and being strengthened by God to do His work is echoed throughout the Scriptures and the lives of the saints. Those thirty years of hiddenness spent in Nazareth, growing in prayer, virtue, wisdom, strength, and maturity, were foundational for Jesus’ public ministry. The fruit born in the final three years of His life would not have made the same impact had He not been nurtured daily in His hidden, ordinary life with Joseph and Mary, watered by God’s grace all those previous years.
Having felt stretched by years of waiting in my vocation (read more about my infertility story here), especially as of late as we prepare to start the fostering to adopt process, I have to remind myself of this when I have doubts about become a first-time parent in my mid-forties. I am grateful for my sisters in Christ here and others that God has placed around me to speak the truth over me: “I am not behind. I am walking the path that God has laid before me, step by step, day by day.” The obstacles and challenges I have faced up to now have formed me into the woman God has called forth. God’s timing and purpose are perfect in all things, and as we wait and trust in Him, we are being strengthened through hiddenness to have greater impact for His Kingdom, just like the Holy Family did.
Holy Family of Nazareth, pray for us!