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Also inside: Fr Robert Barron says that every family has a mission
DECEMBER 24 2010 Christmas and New Year supplement
Pope Benedict XVI’s Christmas cards for 2009 featured this Nativity scene
CNS photo/Paul Haring
An earthly reflection of the Trinity
The first person on record as using the term Holy Family was St Bernadine of Siena, but the image of Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus has always spoken to the hearts of Christians, says Tracey Rowland
One of my childhood holy cards featured St Joseph at his carpenter’s bench teaching the young Jesus the skills of his trade, surrounded by a platoon of angels in pastel-coloured smocks. They were busy with dust pans, brushes and brooms sweeping up the shavings of wood that had fallen on to the floor. This was my introduction to the Holy Family and the image has remained with me ever since.
But the more usual artistic depictions of the Holy Family are based on the l4th century visions of St Bridget of Sweden.
In St Bridget’s vision of the Nativity not only Our Lady and St Joseph watch over the Christ Child in the manger, but also God the Father and God the Holy Spirit are looking down protectively from heaven. Sometimes a vertical shaft of light connects God the Father with the baby Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Such images affirm Christ’s divinity as well as presenting the earthly Holy Family as a reflection of the heavenly Trinity.
In the Annunciation with St Joseph and Donors, also known as the Mérode triptych, by the medieval Flemish artist
Robert Campin, the first panel shows the windows of the house at Nazareth wide open so that the whole of humanity can peer in and ponder the mystery of the life of the Holy Family. The second panel focuses on the Incarnation. The Christ Child arrives carrying a cross and flying towards his mother on seven rays which signify the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. In this panel the angel Gabriel wears the vestments of a deacon and there are other Eucharistic symbols relating the Incarnation to the Mass. In the third panel St Joseph is busy constructing a mouse trap which is probably a reference to St Augustine’s metaphor of the cross as a mousetrap set for the Devil. St Joseph is thus doing his bit as guardian of the nascent Church by helping to make the Devil’s trap.
The first person on record as using the expression “the Holy Family” was St Bernadine of Siena (1380-1444), a Franciscan priest otherwise renowned for his spreading of devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus and for the popularity of his homilies. During the same era, Jean Gerson (1363-1429), who was the chancellor of the Sorbonne, also used the expression “the Holy
St Teresa of Avila and St Francis de Sales helped to lift St Joseph out of obscurity
Family” and he spoke of Jesus, Mary and Joseph as that “venerable trinity which Divinity has joined, the concord of love”. At the Council of Constance (1416) he promoted the idea of a feast day for St Joseph who had hitherto been a neglected member of the communion of saints, perhaps because, although his name is mentioned in the Bible, not one of his words is recorded.
Later, St Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) and St Francis de Sales (1567-1622) were also to encourage devotion to the Holy Family. They spoke of the impossibility of understanding the spiritual mission of one member of the family without reference to the other two. In the letters and homilies of these two Doctors of the Church, St Joseph is lifted out of obscurity and treated as an important intercessor in the communion of the saints.
Of special theological significance was the insight of Francisco de Osuna (1492-1540), a Franciscan Friar and a spiritual director to St Teresa of Avila, that there exists an analogous relationship between the Trinity of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in heaven, and the trinity of the Holy Family on earth. This theme has more recently been endorsed by Pope Benedict who takes it one step further to include, ideally, all human families. As he said on the Feast of the Holy Family in 2009, “the human family, in a certain sense, is an icon of the Trinity because of its interpersonal love and the fruitfulness of this love”.
John Paul II also argued that the communion of persons within the Trinity is the prototype of all human relationships, and especially familial relationships. His Theology of the Body (which lamentably is often marketed like the latest KFC “hot combo”) seeks to understand the sacrament of marriage and therefore the exchange of love between man and woman, as the couple’s participation in the exchange of “gifts” between the divine persons. This account of the meaning and purpose of human sexuality is all light years away from the pre-conciliar “marital dues” theology and the Jansenism which did so much damage wherever it took hold of Catholic communities.
Many of these themes can be found in the articles of Joseph F Chorpenning and in Cardinal Marc Ouellet’s book Divine Likeness: Toward a Trinitarian Anthropology of the Family. (Cardinal Ouellet was the Primate of Canada but he has recently been appointed as the prefect for the Congregation for Bishops.)
Ouellet writes: “The seal of marital holiness is a supernatural work of art, which shines in the midst of society as a real symbol of the Church indissoluably united to Christ. The witness of united families, who live according to the model of the ‘Holy Family’ at one time called the ‘earthly trinity’, carries with it a creative breath of culture and civilisation.”
The contemporary Catholic family is thus not only an icon of the Trinity but as such an outpost of western civilisation, and the last line of defence against the culture of death. This is well illustrated by Alexander Boot in his How the West was Lost. Boot speaks of a social war between “Westman” (Catholics and other creedal Christians) and “Modman Nihilist” and “Modman Philistine”. Boot’s central message is that the only resistance to philistinism and nihilism within contemporary western culture is coming from Catholics who understand that the main weapon of Modman is the “slow imposition of philistine values on society”, accompanied by a gradual imposition of political and economic power that can force Westman into compliance. Included within the strategy is the replacement of the historic role of the father by the state bureaucracy, and the eventual abolition of the family itself. In the Australian state of Victoria, which is competing with London for the title of the geopolitical epicentre of the culture of death, the noun “father” is no longer a term used in statutes regulating reproductive technology. The mother can apply to have anyone registered as her co-parent providing she has their consent.
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