He rose, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go back there. And because he had been warned in a dream, he departed for the region of Galilee. He went and dwelt in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, He shall be called a Nazorean.
Reading the gospel passage from Matthew on this Feast of the Holy Family, one is struck by the literary contortions of the evangelist in order to get the Holy Family to settle in Nazareth. Yet, the twists and turns in the story are, in fact, reminiscent of the lives of each of us.
Joseph is a central figure in the infancy narratives of Matthew. And, from the beginning, Joseph is called to respond to one difficult situation after another. His betrothed is with a child who is not his, and he must come to trust that the child that Mary carries is from the Holy Spirit of God; he then learns that the life of his child is threatened by Herod, and so he must flee with them to Egypt; after Herod dies he plans to return to Israel, but he then hears that Archelaus has taken over the rule of Judea following Herod’s death, and so he must relocate his family to Nazareth. The will of God, in the Holy Family’s regard, is not a clear trajectory. The greatness and holiness of the Joseph who is presented to us in Matthew’s gospel lies in his discernment of and trust in God’s will in all that happens and in his commitment and fidelity to the wellbeing of his family in the midst of darkness and uncertainty.
Having arrived at an age where I spend a good amount of time in retrospection, I slowly begin to recognize how my life call and life path have often consisted of strange and unexpected turns. Life is not at all what we think and project it will be. Many of those moments that have been the most significant and formative in my life were often both unanticipated and initially unwelcome. As Soren Kierkegaard noted: “Life must be understood backward . . . [but] it must be lived forward.” Throughout our lives, both personally and in our families and communities, we shall encounter, as did Joseph, situations that we cannot understand but that we must discern and to which we must faithfully and wholeheartedly respond, despite our lack of clarity and certainty.
Faith, hope, and love are all aspects of the same reality. Our lives are experiences of dwelling in the Mystery. For all our attempts to manage and control life, we are constantly presented with situations which are foreign and even often overwhelming to us. To have faith is to trust that somehow, even when it appears otherwise, the Mystery is beneficent. It is because of this faith and trust that we have hope, not hope for a specific outcome, but hope that ultimately the loving will of our God will prevail. Finally, it is love and commitment that allows us to navigate the foreign and mysterious ways of our lives.
Faith becomes real for us in loving commitment. When we marry, we commit ourselves to each other “to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part.” There is a rare wisdom in this public commitment. We vow ourselves, in whatever life brings to each of us and to our children, to stand by and serve each other until death, often with only our willing love and commitment to hold onto in difficult and dark times.
Be it in our personal lives or in the lives of our families and communities, love requires of us a faithful being with and for each other through all of what we understand and do not understand, through all of what seems to make sense to us and in those times where we seem at an impasse. In East Coker, T. S. Eliot writes:
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Our secular and consumerist culture offers us a vision of a happy life and a desired future. In that vision we accumulate wealth and possessions, our children are healthy and successful, and we continue to experience infatuation and passion for each other and for our chosen path into old age. Yet, we all experience, in whatever our way of life, a very different way. We actually learn love in the way that Hebrews tells us Jesus learned obedience, that is “through suffering.” We learn faith by daring to take a step in the dark and in uncertainty. We learn hope by waiting for outcomes that are not ours to control or determine.
It is in family life, and in all the ways that we share life with others, that we learn how to be disciples of the Lord and of Reality. We do our best to love each other and to respond to what life brings us, never being certain of the outcome or even of the rightness of our actions. Step by step Joseph does what he can to be faithful, and, even in the dark places, he waits in faith, hope, and love for what will next be asked of him. So too with us. Our lives are no more or less contorted than the life of the Holy Family. Yet, we believe that what are mysterious contortions to us are not directionless and without meaning but rather God’s providential way for us, a way that is illuminated by a living and active faith, hope, and love.
As soon as I am at home in myself and in my life situation, people, events, and things come to meet me in a new way. I truly dwell in a world no longer experienced as only hostile and resisting, or as a mere field for my task orientation; the world becomes for me a revelation of the Holy, setting everything in its right place and time, revealing itself in a well-ordered totality. It is for this reason that the experience of the Holy leads to a feeling of serenity, for I feel serene when everything is allotted the place where it belongs. There it stands in the brightness of the Holy like a still light of meaning, proportionate to its own position in the whole of creation. When I truly experience the Holy, I joyfully realize that everything has its proper place in the House of History, I myself included. This leads to an experience of peace and tranquility and clarifies the meaning of persons, events, and situations as they are presented through the ages.
Adrian van Kaam, Personality Fulfillment in the Spiritual Life, pp. 40-41