It is a beautiful thing to meditate on the Holy Family as an example for our own families.
Indeed, it’s not hard to be inspired by any artist’s depiction of the Holy Family, whether they are portrayed in a nativity scene, at their humble work, resting at home, or on the flight into Egypt.
But what do these depictions of the Holy Family really reveal? What is their deeper significance?
The Holy Family: God’s “Dream” for Mankind
As Christians, we revere these holy and loving spouses who are in awe of this Divine Child, who is also their God.
Yet what about the holy couple themselves? What do we really understand about them?
There is too much to consider to accurately answer this question, and even if we could give a complete answer we must always leave room for that mystery that shrouds our understanding and our faith.
Yet Venerable Fulton Sheen, in his remarkable book The World’s First Love, has attempted to lift the veil surrounding Mary and Joseph and the Holy Family. He shares with us the beautiful pattern of God’s creation with Mary as the Mother of God and Joseph as her Most Chaste Spouse.
In The World’s First Love, Fulton Sheen begins the conversation about Mary with an explanation: that everything in creation has a prototype, or a beginning that first existed in the mind of God.
God…has within Himself blueprints of everything in the universe. As the architect has in his mind a plan of the house before the house is built, so God has in His Mind an archetypal idea of every flower, bird, tree, springtime, and melody. There never was a brush touched to canvas nor a chisel to marble without some great pre-existing idea. So, too, every atom and every rose is a realization and concretion of an idea existing in the Mind of God from all eternity. All creatures below man correspond to the pattern God has in His Mind. A tree is truly a tree because it corresponds to God’s idea of a tree. A rose is a rose because it is God’s idea of a rose wrapped up in chemicals and tints and life.Venerable Fulton Sheen, The World’s First Love
Sheen goes on to also tell us that, as human beings, God’s prototype for us is not fully recognized because of original sin:
God has to have two pictures of us: one is what we are, and the other is what we ought to be.Venerable Fulton Sheen, The World’s First Love
It is true that, as creatures, we are a reflection of God—but that reflection has been distorted. It’s like a blurry mirror: our own sins cloud and diminish the reflection of God in us.
There may be times when we can make out the image of the Creator, but the image is warped. Like an untuned piano, the notes are offkey.
Not so with Mary. The melody of her life was played just as it was written.
Fulton Sheen explains how we can never exhaust the profound holiness that exists within Mary as the “one created without sin” who freely chose to be that vessel of love for all of mankind through the will of God.
He describes Mary as the “equal sign” who fulfills all that the Heavenly Father has planned for her:
There is, actually, only one person in all humanity of whom God has one picture, and in whom there is a perfect conformity between what He wanted her to be and what she is, and that is His own Mother. Most of us are a minus sign, in the sense that we do not fulfil the high hopes that the Heavenly Father has for us. But Mary is the equal sign. The Ideal that God had of her, that is she is, and in the flesh. The model and the copy are perfect; she is all that was foreseen, planned, and dreamed. The melody of her life is played just as it was written.Venerable Fulton Sheen, The World’s First Love
Due to our fallen nature we will always be seeking for that equal sign—to become what we were made to be.
Although we are sinners in a fallen world, we must never stop seeking that ideal that God has for us. And we have been given a gift of a Mother to assist us; a Mother who always has that same desire for our own holiness because she, too, longs for it for us.
We can aspire to be like Mary. We can ask for her humility.
We can even ask to borrow her Immaculate Heart, so full of humility. Sheen tells us that it is her lowliness that allows her to be the vessel for God’s action in her soul:
Lowliness and exaltation are one in her: lowliness because, judging herself to be unworthy of being the Mother of Our Lord, she took the vow of virginity; exalted because God, looking upon what Mary believed was her nothingness, once more created a world out of “nothing.”Venerable Fulton Sheen, The World’s First Love
It is true that the more empty the soul is of self, the greater the room in it for God.
And Sheen says that this is the “intrinsic relation between the humility of Mary and the Incarnation of the Son of God within.”
In fact, we can see this in the Blessed Mother’s own words in the Magnificat:
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.“Luke 1:46
Mary’s song rejoices in God in a way that one who is filled with its own ego cannot. There is no limit on God’s desire and generous ability to possess a soul; it is the soul itself that allows entry or limits His welcome. When He is fully welcomed, we can fully rejoice, like Mary did.
Fulton Sheen reminds us that it is on account of Our Divine Lord that Mary receives special attention, and not on account of herself. It is her Son who makes Mary’s motherhood different. We (the Church) did not make her different, he says—we found her to be different.
We did not choose Mary; God did.Venerable Fulton Sheen, The World’s First Love
Joseph: Ideal of Masculine Fatherhood
Joseph, too, is different. Though having a humanity like our own, he was filled with a holiness that shows us what we are called to be.
When the angel came to Joseph and told him: “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” the trajectory of his life was clear. His worries were overcome by the revelation of the dignity of Christ’s Virgin Birth and of the nature of Christ’s mission to save us from our sins.
From that point on, St. Joseph kept the Blessed Mother protected with honor and bore witness to her purity.
Although there are many statues and images of Joseph in art which portray Joseph as an old man, Fulton Sheen helps us to understand why we can be assured that Joseph was a young man.
He explains that one reason artists often portrayed Joseph as elderly is because people wanted to safeguard the virginity of Mary, working from the (incorrect) mindset that a young man could not have practiced perfect chastity:
Somehow, the assumption had crept in that senility was a better protector of virginity than adolescence. Art thus, unconsciously, made Joseph a spouse, chaste and pure by age, rather than by virtue.Venerable Fulton Sheen, The World’s First Love
Meanwhile, there are valid reasons that Sheen gives to support the idea that Joseph was not an elderly man:
To make Joseph appear pure only because his flesh had aged is like glorifying a mountain stream that has dried. The Church will not ordain a man to his priesthood who has not his vital powers. She wants men who have something to tame, rather than those who are tame because they have no energy to be wild. It should be no different with God.
Furthermore, it is reasonable to believe that Our Lord would prefer, for a foster father, someone who had made a sacrifice rather than someone who was forced to it. There is the added historical fact that the Jews frowned on a disproportionate marriage between what Shakespeare calls “crabbed age and youth”; the Talmud [Book of Jewish civil and ceremonial law and legend] admits a disproportionate marriage only for widows or widowers. Finally, it seems hardly possible that God would have attached a young mother, probably about sixteen or seventeen years of age, to an old man.Venerable Fulton Sheen, The World’s First Love
Joseph was probably a young man, strong, virile, athletic, handsome, chaste, and disciplined; the kind of man one sees sometimes shepherding sheep, or piloting a plane, or working at a carpenter’s bench. Instead of being a man incapable of loving, he must have been on fire with love!Venerable Fulton Sheen, The World’s First Love
Mary and Joseph brought to their espousals not only their vows of virginity, but also two hearts with “greater torrents of love than had ever before coursed through human breasts.”
Fulton Sheen explains why, in a normal marriage, unity in the flesh is the symbol of its consummation, but still only a foretaste of the joy that comes to the soul when it attains union with God through grace. Mary and Joseph had no need for this kind of physical unity:
In the case of Mary and Joseph, there was no need of the symbol of the unity of flesh, since they already possessed the Divinity. Why pursue the shadow when they had the substance? Mary and Joseph needed no consummation in the flesh for, in the beautiful language of Leo XIII: “The consummation of their love was in Jesus.”Venerable Fulton Sheen, The World’s First Love
Love usually makes husband and wife one, states Sheen, but in the case of Mary and Joseph, it was not their combined loves but Jesus Who made them one.
They did not go to God through love of one another; rather, because they went first to God, they had a deep and pure love one for another…Venerable Fulton Sheen, The World’s First Love
No deeper love ever beat under the roof of the world since the beginning, nor will it ever beat, even unto the end.
The Beautiful Truth of the Holy Family
We can see, then, the beautiful truth about the Holy Family: it is the Child Jesus who makes this family unique, and He is also the one who makes holiness possible for each of our own families.
We are all called to this holiness. God could have chosen other means for our salvation. Yet Jesus Christ came into the world as a child under the care of human parents.
It is the Holy Family that helps us to draw near to the Incarnation:
Leaning over the manger crib of the Infant Jesus, then, are not age and youth, but youth and youth, the consecration of beauty in a maid and the surrender of strong comeliness in a man. If the Ancient of Days turned back eternity and became young again; if the condition of entering Heaven is to be reborn and to become young again, then, to all young married couples: here is your model, your prototype, your Divine Imaginal. From these two spouses, who loved as no couple on earth has ever loved, learn that it takes not two to love, but three: you and you and Jesus. Do you not speak of “our love” as something distinct from the love of each one of you? That love, outside of both of you, and which is more than the addition of your two loves, is the love of God.Venerable Fulton Sheen, The World’s First Love
“Impossible for my family to be holy,” we may think.
But God is the One who will bring about our family’s sanctification, if we will only let Him.
How do Venerable Fulton Sheen’s writings impact your understanding of the Holy Family?
Have you prayed to the Holy Family for your own family members and relationships?
Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!