Cultivating a sense of urgency
The Feast of the Holy Family

Doug McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

The angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream, telling him to rise up, take the child and flee, because Herod means to destroy the child. So soon after the joy of Christmas day, the peace of the Holy Family is disrupted by a sense of urgency. There is real danger, a spirit in the world that is set against this child whose name means “Yahweh is Salvation”.

The readings of Advent always have a sense of urgency about them: “Stay awake; time is short; be prepared; the Lord is coming at an hour you least expect; etc.” Here, in this gospel, Joseph has to take the child and flee from a very real threat.

In this gospel, the history of Israel is summed up and relived in the person of Christ; for the life of Israel is fundamentally a foreshadowing of the life of Christ, and Christ’s life is a corroboration of Israel’s status as first born son. Just as Israel was forced into Egypt to avoid famine, so too must Jesus be taken to Egypt. And just as Moses, Israel’s deliverer, had to be protected from a malicious and murderous Pharaoh, so too was Jesus protected from the murderous and malicious king Herod the Great. And as Israel was led out of Egypt, so too was Jesus lead out of Egypt and back to Israel. Later, when he is older and ready to carry out his ministry in public, he will cross the Jordan, as did Israel, and he will be baptized by John.

Many Catholics, including a number of bishops and clergy, have lost a sense of this evangelical urgency. The life of Israel was a battle against her enemies, and the life of Christ was a battle against his enemies, and life lived in Christ, in the heart of the Church, which is Christ’s Mystical body, is a continuation of that battle. We are at war. The spirit of the world that is represented in the person of the Pharaoh of Egypt, and in the person of Herod the Great, the spirit that seeks to eradicate the spirit of Christ in the world, will remain till the very end of the world, and there is no remaining neutral. Anyone who chooses to stay on the sidelines to observe as a kind of neutral bystander because he loves peace has actually taken sides; he has made a decision not to belong to Christ, but to belong to the world that has declared war on the spirit of Christ. Christ said it: “Whoever is not with me is against me” (Lk 11, 23); “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Mt 10, 34).

The peace that Christ brings is an entirely different kind of peace; it is the peace that a soldier experiences after having defeated the enemy, the peace of victory. Outside of this victory, Christ’s victory, there is no peace.

Life in Christ is a battle, we are at war, and anyone who thinks that this life is supposed to be about peaceful and easy living, or worse, that life in Christ is a means to a more secure and comfortable life, has really missed the message of the gospel. There is an enemy in the world, a spirit of evil, and it seeks to corrupt what is holy, to soil whatever is a reflection of the divine.

Herod sought to destroy the holy family. Kill the child and you kill the family. And of course today that spirit is alive in the world, but well disguised under a language of rights and freedoms. Can you think of anything that more clearly reflects the divine and the holy than the image of two young people who love one another, give themselves entirely to one another in marriage, conceive a child, and direct their entire lives, using all their gifts and acquired knowledge, to the care of that child? That is a genuine reflection of the Holy Trinity.

But marriage has been in decline since 1968; the divorce rate is still over 50%, and in Scandinavian countries most people do not get married. Abortion is regarded as a basic human right and is even regarded by many in this country, under the new designation “multifetal pregnancy reduction”, as a loving option for everyone involved, including the triplet or quadruplet that is to be aborted.

The life of a Catholic is not meant to be a neutral life, but a light in the darkness. St. Joseph is a perfect image of the life of the Catholic man. He was awakened from slumber and was required to take note of the evil that exists and that is set against his family, to rise up and protect that family, to protect that child and his mother for the sake of the world’s salvation, and to rely completely and utterly on God in doing so.

Joseph had no credit card, no hotel reservation, no knowledge of what tomorrow would bring; he had to rely totally on the providence of God. How could he even be certain that an angel appeared to him? After all, the angel appeared in a dream; it could have been only a dream. There’s no certainty in that; but he trusted. He acted on trust.

It is astounding to think that God the Son, the eternal Son of the Father, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, would enter into this world through a family without proper security and stability. One expects that God would arrange things so that the child is not subject to the instability and poverty of a refugee. But no, immediately they find themselves as refugees, and both Joseph and Mary are required to depend entirely on the providence of God while directing their entire lives around the care of someone outside themselves, the care of a child.

Christ came to show us what it means to be a flesh and blood human. Unlike an angel, to be man is to be severely limited in knowledge: we don’t know the future, we don’t know what tomorrow will bring, and we eventually forget most of the past. To be a man is to learn to be completely and utterly dependent upon God, to learn to trust and allow ourselves to be guided and carried along by the Lord every moment of every day.

To be man is to live life centered on the care and protection of another. To be man is to love. Sacrifice is the language of love, and life in Christ is a life of sacrifice; the self is denied for the sake of the other, but in the world, it is and has always been the reverse, the other occupies second place, or is denied, or sacrificed, for the sake of self.

Today, the idea is to wait and start your family—if you choose to have one—when you finish university and have a job, and have purchased a house, that is, when all is secure. My former students for the most part think along those lines. There is no trust in divine providence, they have not learned to rely on God, and they tend to regard this way of thinking as reckless. They only step out after they’ve established that security through their own efforts. They have not learned to rely on God, in fact, they have chosen not to.

But to be fully human is to live your life centered entirely around Christ, as Mary and Joseph’s life was so centered. It is not to live for the self, and it is not to live for the security of a peaceful existence. It is to enter into the battle for salvation, for the salvation of souls, for the defence and protection of all that is sacred, to discover the part that God wants you to play in this drama and to enter into it with courage and trust.