In the early Church we encounter the idea of “mystery” frequently. The English term seems at first sight to be a translation of the Greek, or better, a transliteration, and has lost the richness ofits meaning in an ecclesial setting. When we hear the Church Fathers, from Cyril of Jerusalemthrough to Augustine, speaking of “mystery” to the catechumens whom they are preparing for baptism, and therefore for incorporation into Christ, they intend something very specific – the mysteries of which they speak are the sacramental life of the Church and the Christian believer. To be brought into the life of the mysteries is to be made one who participates in thesacraments, and so enters into the fullness of Christ’s mysteries. Something of it remains whenthe celebrant, after the consecration of the elements at Mass, says, “The mystery of faith”. The Mysterium fidei, the sacrament of faith, is, preeminently, Christ’s Body and Blood.
When we consider the Holy Family of Nazareth we consider just such an encounter with mystery. Up until the Council of Trent in the 16th century the Church had a much broaderunderstanding of sacrament – witness the writings of the Cistercian Fathers like St Bernard of Clairvaux. And so, the Holy Family of Nazareth does precisely this – it speaks to us of sacrament by its very reality, and asks us to consider the sacramental aspects of our family lives.
Three of these mysteries-sacraments are worth considering today: the mystery of personhood;the mystery of relationship; the mystery of individual and community growth.
The mystery-sacrament of personhood is tied to our very createdness and creatureliness -made in the image and likeness of God, personhood is an expression of our already present divine life: the community of persons which is the Trinity communicates its very nature to eachof us in the moment of our coming to being. The dignity of this personhood has become one of the most precious gifts to be threatened today, and this can come as no surprise – when society decides that its life can be lived without a recognition of the presence of God, then it will soonfollow that the same society diminishes the dignity of the person so intimately related to the Creator God. Each of the persons in the home at Nazareth is constituted, in so far as the Gospel writers can manage within their specific plan and space, as person, with a history, acharacter, a plan for life, a vocation… Even within the limited scope we have a sense that this Mary and Joseph are more than two-dimensional story figures: there is a sense of the accumulation of the moments and events of their lives in which God has gradually revealed himself as close, intimate and involved. They live lives in association with God, and thisassociation reveals them for who they are.
This God-present reveals itself constantly as the defining feature of the Nazareth home, and notsimply because the Word made flesh is the child there. The Jewish writer and philosopher Martin Buber, in one of his most frequently quoted words, writes: we expect a theophany of which we know only the place, and the place is community. As a Jew, Buber’s feeling ofexpectation is quite specific – it is the looking forward to the coming of one who has not yetcome, the promised Messiah. But the words are transformed for the Christian – this expectation is the expression of desire to encounter the already-present Messiah. Theophany is the complete self-revelation of God, and the divine manifestation in Jesus Christ trumps all previous theophanies, from the appearance to Abraham at the Oak of Mamre, to Moses before the Bush,to Elijah’s encounter on the holy mountain. Buber’s thought situates us in the context of theHoly Family -as a community which mirrors that First Community of Persons, it is the locus , the place of the fullest self-revelation of God: God is always fully present where one of the Divine Persons is to be noted – the Trintarian God is present already in the very present of theIncarnate Word.
This mystery-sacrament of relationship lies at the heart of family, then. It is the place, or has the possibility to be the place, of theophany – and this is never simply about revelation, but always also about encounter. This is why the proposal of the model or school (to use Pope Saint PluVI’s words) resonates so fully for Christians – it is a place par excellence for encounter with God. Indeed, because God’s intervention in our human history is always salvific the place created bythe Christian family becomes a place in which salvation is made manifest – and this, not only for the members of the family itself but for all those who have the opportunity for association with that sacrament of relationship.
The mystery-sacrament of dynamic becoming in some way lies behind what we usually call the “hidden years” of Jesus’ life with Mary and Joseph. In fact, it is an odd expression – the Deus Absconditus, the Hidden God, of the Old Testament is no longer hidden in the Word made flesh! God is not a capricious God, who, like a naughty child, plays hide and seek with those who so earnestly seek him. He stands now in full view. So, those years which are simply not covered in the Gospel narratives, are years marked not by a static existence, but, on the contrary, by the continued bedcoming of each of the members of the family. God remains and is always creative – the life of the family, if it is a life lived as fully as hope dares propose, should bemarked by that same creative dynamism, both at the level or on the part of the individual member and the community – it is , therefore, a place of becoming and a place facilitating becoming. This becoming is also infinite because it has its origin and end in God. In this sense it is truly sacramental, since a sacrament is wholly wedded to the finite and yet at the same time transcends the finite by bridging the gap to the infinite and eternal.
In the Holy Family we celebrate not an ideal but a reality. Ideals are aimed at but neverachieved – it is in their very nature that they lie just beyond our grasp but keeping us stretchingout nonetheless. Ideals are, therefore, by their nature, unobtainable and frustrating. But the reality of Nazareth is lived and present – it endures as a present reality because it is the house, the place, the context and the environment in which God, in a wholly salvific way, intervenes. That intervention, always full and complete, remains for us boundless and accessible. If it were not so, the sacramental aspect to marriage and family life would count for nothing.
In the early weeks and meditations of the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola, the retreatant is encouraged to begin by entering into the mystery of the Trinity’s decision to intervene definitively in human history through the Incarnation of the Second Person. Throught he means of the prayer form which begins with a compositio loci – a composition of place – StIgnatius encourages the retreatant to bring his whole self to this scene, to this moment, to this encounter. In the same way, bringing our full selves, with all our faculties and senses, to the place, the locus, of the home at Nazareth, we can enter into the mysteries which are lived as sacrament – graced-presence of God in the Word made flesh – in that place. In doing so, we have the possibility of entering into dialogue with Mary, with Joseph, with the Jesus Child. What are they saying – to one another; in prayer; in private; to me? What is my response? How do I witness them living their lives together? Do I see myself present there, or them present with me in my own home? What do I wish to say to them? What do I wish to ask from them so that they might advise, counsel, comfort? We remember that in doing this our desire, our expectation, is to meet the God who reveals himself and makes himself known, and wishes me to come to recognise and know him.