Merry Christmas! May God bless your day with a deep love for your family starting today, for the Church intends us to begin an extended meditation on the family today. From now until the Sunday following Christmas, the Feast of the Holy Family, we are given a marvelous mystery to contemplate. God refused to take on our flesh without also taking on all the family relationships that our flesh implies.
Sadly, these very feasts, the feasts of Christmas and the Holy Family, divide Catholics not only from pagans, but also from most other Christians. As soon as anyone, Catholic or not, begins meditating on the conception and birth of Christ or on the Holy Family, we encounter the Catholic doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity, of Mary and Joseph’s married celibacy. This is not easy to understand. But if we spend time thinking about it, we will be richly rewarded. Let’s spend ten minutes together thinking about it.
The answer to the apparent problem lies in an understanding of who God is and how we reflect Him. In other words, the answer can really only be understood through the Theology of the Body. John Paul II began teaching the Theology of the Body even before he was consecrated Pope. He spent a large proportion of Wednesday audiences in his first five years explaining it. Since then, nearly every theological teaching he has brought forward has in some way expanded our understanding of it. So, what is the Theology of the Body?
Well, it is nothing new. The Church has taught this since the beginning. It resonates throughout Scripture, rings through the works of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, echoes in the mystical visions of the greatest saints. John Paul II merely synthesizes it, summarizes it, organizes it. The Theology of the Body is based on the idea that man and woman together are meant to live out God’s life in our own bodies, at the very root of our being.
It is built on essentially three concepts. God is a communion of persons, a family whose life is love (Eph 3:19). Man and woman are meant to live together in such a way that we live out the inner life of God in our own body (Gen 1:27-28). Christ is the Bridegroom (John 3:29) who marries together the divine nature and human nature in His own Divine Person.
We could summarize those three statements another way. God is the First Family, our families image His, and Christ marries us into His family. That’s it. That’s all there is to the Theology of the Body. Everything else one may say about the it is just a logical extension of these three ideas.
As you can see from the repetition of the marriage/family concept, the Theology of the Body is going to be rather important to understanding the infancy of God and the Feast of the Holy Family. Now, a lot can be said about this understanding - the Pope spent five years’ worth of Wednesday audiences explaining it. The vast majority of the encyclicals and apostolic letters from his incredibly long and productive reign extend the explanation. But to understand the Holy Family we need only to understand two key things.
First, God made a marriage between our body and soul, a marriage that is not meant to be dissolved, a marriage that is necessary for our happiness. Death is the separation of body and soul. It wasn’t part of the original plan. That’s why we get our bodies back on the day of Last Judgement. We need our bodies to be completely happy in heaven. Our bodies are part of who we are, they are necessary for us to image God. The people who are in heaven now are not as happy as they will be when they get their bodies back on the Last Day.
Second, God is the First Family of Persons, and we are made to participate in His Divine Family life, we are meant to share in the Divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). Now, since we need our bodies to be happy, we need our bodies in order to fully participate in His Divine Family life. Jesus Christ, who joins the divine and the human together in His Person, makes this participation possible.
We could sum these two points up as well: we are meant to be in an intimate family relationship, in our flesh, with God, with the Three Persons of the Trinity.
Wow. That’s no small thing. In fact, it’s probably safe to say that most of us are not ready for this. God knows we are not. That’s why He gives us families to live in here on earth. Our family on earth is meant to give each of us an opportunity to train, to prepare to live out a family relationship with God in the flesh. That is why family is so important. Paul said, “I bow my knee before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name.” (Eph 3:19). Every family is a family only insofar as it looks like God. Insofar as it does not look like God, it is not a family, it is just a bunch of people living at the same address. Every family is a training ground in which we are to learn how to live in heaven. Because of sin, every family is also a pre-eminent place for us to learn about our Cross and to learn how to carry it.
In fact, marriage consecrates husband and wife for this task: the task of imaging heaven. The husband is consecrated by marriage to become his wife’s servant, and to do everything necessary to help her get to heaven. Similarly, the wife is consecrated by marriage to become the husband’s servant, and to do everything necessary to help him get to heaven. Together, through their conjugal relations, they beget children, whom they are consecrated to serve together: they do everything necessary to help their children get into heaven. The fecundity of conjugal relations is meant to be an echo of the fecundity of God. God intends the pleasure between man and wife, the pleasure of the marriage bed, of the raising of children, of the joy of earthly family life, to be a pale imitation of the joy we will have in participating in the life of the Divine Family of Persons. All of these earthly joys imitate and point to our greatest joy: the joy of sharing in the Divine Family life of God in our own flesh.
Now we can see why Mary and Joseph were celibate. Mary and Joseph had Jesus as their child. They lived, in their own flesh, family life with God in the flesh. They had the most intimate union with God one can know, the intimacy of parent with child, of father and mother with little one. What man looks for water when he has the finest wine? Why would Mary or Joseph partake of a pale imitation of joy when they had the fullest joy possible, the very divine joy God intended them to experience from the beginning of time? No matter how rich our family life or the joy we take in each other as spouses, we parents can at most only vaguely imitate heaven on earth: because Jesus is their child, Mary and Joseph lived heaven on earth.
And now we can also see why we have such a hard time understanding Mary and Joseph’s celibacy: we have spent so much time fixated on pale earthly imitations, that we haven’t spent enough time contemplating heaven. For the octave of Christmas, do yourself and your family a marvelous favor. Kneel before the Holy Family and contemplate heaven.