How Holy Is the Holy Family?
While away from my home for my Christmas vacation on Sunday, my wife and I heard a homily that left us concerned for the understanding of our fellow Massgoers. The homilist attempted to emphasize the Holy Family’s approachability, but it ended in several errors and misunderstandings. As I sat in my pew, struggling to move on with the Mass after the homily, I resolved to blog a response to the opinions expressed in that homily in order to lay them aside for that moment. I present those errors (in paraphrase) below with corrections:
“When I was young, I used to think that the Holy Family was perfect, but that’s not true. Only Jesus was perfect; Mary and Joseph were human like us. Mary was not a perfect person.”
There are two concerns with this statement. First, Mary and Joseph were indeed human like us, but so was Jesus. This is such a fundamental error that I believe the homilist simply didn’t articulate well what he intended to say, namely, that Mary and Joseph were not God. However, it’s important to note that this truth doesn’t imply that Jesus was any less human, nor any less knowledgeable or understanding of human nature. Jesus is God. He knows and understands humanity through and through. That Mary and Joseph were not God doesn’t make Jesus any less human.
Second, Mary was indeed a perfect person – a morally perfect human person.* Just the fact that she was not God does not keep her from being perfect. Remember: she was full of grace, as we say in the Hail Mary. This phrase translates the angel’s greeting to Mary at the Annunciation, χαῖρε, κεχαριτωμένη in Greek, the tense of which indicates a completed action, e.g. the gracing of Mary had already been completed, she was fully graced, or full of grace. Perhaps someone will think that, like the rest of us, she began imperfect and had been perfected before the Annunciation. This would be insufficient because she would have been perfected by the time she was the Mother of the Holy Family, but more importantly, it’s a heresy. Ineffabilis Deus, the Apostolic Constitution promulgated by Bl. Pope Pius IX, declared that Mary was, from the start, “by a special grace and privilege of God, … preserved free from all stain of original sin.” In fact, her perfection is precisely what makes the Immaculate Conception such a wonderful intercessor on our behalf.
*You could choose to define perfection in such a way that God alone is the only Perfect Being, but the homilist here was clearly referring to moral perfection.
“At the Annunciation, Mary hesitated to accept God’s will for her.”
Sadly, this interpretation of Luke’s account continues despite the evangelist’s concerted effort to say exactly the opposite. A careful exegesis of Luke will note that the angel Gabriel first went to speak to Zachariah, who doubted (Luke 1:18-20), and that only in that context did the angel go to speak with the Blessed Virgin Mary. Both asked questions of Gabriel – questions that, on the surface, appear very similar – but Zachariah was punished and Mary rewarded. The intentions of their hearts show the difference. Zachariah asked his question scoffingly, as one who wanted to understand before he would believe. Mary, on the other hand, asked as a believer who wanted to understand. (More on her question in a minute.)
Aside from that, Mary’s alleged hesitation is an insult to the total trust she placed in God. As a sinless creature, the Blessed Virgin was detached perfectly from inordinate desires, because God’s will was always her only desire. Mary was always ready to do God’s will because of her perfection in faith. That doesn’t make Mary unlike us. Mary is, in fact, everything we’re called to be. If she had hesitated to do God’s will, she wouldn’t have become the great model of faith that “all generations will call blessed.”
“…she was concerned about her life, her reputation, her own wedding plans…”
To choose one’s own life plans and reputation against God’s will would be a sin of pride, and even to hesitate to do God’s will out of those concerns would be a lack of the perfection that comes with being the Immaculate Conception.
My wife, the author of this related post, noticed the “wedding plans” line more than I did. Since the early Church, it has always been held in Sacred Tradition and can be confirmed in Sacred Scripture that the Blessed Virgin was for that time and was always intended to remain a virgin. In Luke 1:34, Mary replies to the Angel Gabriel’s Annunciation with a question: “How shall this be done, because I know not man?” Mary does not say, “well, of course I’ll conceive and bear a son, I’m engaged to Joseph!” Instead, she asks how it will be, and the tense of her question in Greek reveals that “knowing not a man” is an ongoing state of living for her. All this comes in the context of the Tradition (one which we celebrate liturgically on November 21, the Memorial of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary), dating back to the early Church, that Mary had been presented at an early age in the Temple and dedicated to God, with Joseph later assigned as her protector. (Check out the tradition here).
“Joseph, although he was called a righteous man, was also imperfect. He had even planned on divorcing Mary until an angel corrected him.”
I don’t know anyone who would take strong issue with the opinion that Joseph was an imperfect man (though he never sinned in the gospels and there have been some prominent theologians who believed he was sinless). To echo the thought of one of my old Steubenville professors, Ronald Bolster: “Poor St. Joseph. His autobiography would have to be entitled, It Was Always My Fault. If ever anything went wrong at home, Joseph would be seated between the Christ Child and the Blessed Virgin Mary and you’d know who was responsible.” Nevertheless, this whole divorce theory, while popular, doesn’t really show the full truth of the matter. Joseph wanted to “put her away quietly” because he didn’t consider himself worthy.
Conclusion: The Blessed Virgin was a perfect human person, Joseph may have been a near-perfect human person (cleansed of sin in utero with only the temporal effects of original sin remaining), and Jesus, who is God, wasn’t a human person at all (technically, He was a divine Person with a divine nature and a human nature). Instead of making the Holy Family seem more human by alleging its imperfection, perhaps we should be using the Holy Family to point out what humanity is called to be.