Making my way on the healing journey, I learned about and “made friends” with some saints, though the ones I probably gained the most help from was the Holy Family. Given that most/all of my abuse took place in the family, both by blood and by faith…it took such a long time to look up to Mary, Joseph, and Jesus as my Mother, Father, and Lord Brother.
Mary has so many lofty titles: Ever-Virgin, Ever-Blest, Queen of Heaven and Earth, of Angels and Saints. All those names really intimidated me, though none more than her title of Mother. I’d look at her statues, her portraits, and felt she would never, ever want anything to do with the likes of me. No matter what I did, I felt I would only dirty her pure, snowy-white dress if I reached for her, leave a filthy stain on her floor if I approached. I was so drawn to her for so long, her gentle grace, her humble love and beauty, like the tide to the moon, but was so afraid. “She must be so ashamed of me,” I thought.
Mothers, I learned, look down on (and beat down) their children with shame.
I likewise was afraid of Joseph, a fear I still haven’t quite healed from. I know him to be a provider, at least; a little research on why we celebrate his feast day (March 19) with Italian food revealed that they hold a great love and devotion to him for sending rain when they were suffering a terrible drought. My own prayers to him had yielded my day job (I got the call that I was hired on his feast day), my freedom from that abusive household (the day I was given to leave was May 1st, his second feast day), among many other provisional blessings. Still…I don’t really go to him for any paternal love or advice, though, and certainly not for protection.
Fathers, I learned, don’t protect their children; they betray and abandon them.
And of course, Jesus…the Son of God. I never really regarded Him as a “real” human, as I did Mary; if they never sinned, not even had the mark of original sin, they can’t ever know what it’s like to live like we humans do (or so I thought). Then there’s the whole “fully God, fully man” thing; how can Someone infinite, infallible, all-mighty, all-knowing, all-loving, etc. EVER know what it’s like to be human, let alone be human? What’s more, when I’d look up at the Crucifix, I saw only pain; I didn’t see the love everyone said they saw. I didn’t see life or resurrection or hope; I saw death and disgrace (and abuse, from the crucifix over my childhood bed).
God, I learned, was dead, and if He wasn’t, He might as well be.
It was a long, painful road, one I’m not done walking. There are many times I default back to my old beliefs, these new, hopeful beliefs being so against everything I learned to be true. If that’s where you are, take heart; you’re not alone. I want to encourage you to keep walking; when I stay on this road, kept walking, I found so many good things that make all those bad things hurt less.
Virgin Marriage & the Christ Child
When I was drawing the family portrait at the bottom of this post (I’ll wait for you to come back), I largely drew from life-of-Christ films that were more faithful to historical Judea. Maybe it’s because of my own unpronounceable name and racial ambiguity that I’ve taken to knowing the real names and appearances of the saints*, instead of the largely romanized/anglicized (and other racially revised) versions we see in books and art; the closer I can get to what they were like the better.
A/N: As a side note, I actually felt a deeper connection to the saints when I’d learn to call them by their true names. Praying to Yeshua, Mariam, and Yosef felt more intimate than Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Maybe something worth trying?
One of those movies, specifically for Mary and Joseph, was a film/miniseries called Mary of Nazareth. Looking through the screenshots, scenes from the movie would play in my head, particularly concerning the couple. Most of it was very tender and sweet, how I’d imagine their relationship, though there was one moment that stood out as very tense, scary even: Mary had come back from her cousin, Elizabeth’s. At that point, she was a few months along with Jesus, and was clearly showing. She got some ridicule from people in the street over this, but then she came to see Joseph, who was busy working on their house. Much of this was creative liberty, as Luke (and/or Mary, as he clearly got her accounts for his writing) didn’t go much into the emotions that went through Joseph. We know from one account that while he didn’t understand how the Holy Spirit could make his virgin fiancée pregnant, he believed her; the reason he wanted to quietly divorce her was to protect her.
But in the movie (and other movies like it), his first reaction was to immediately jump to the conclusion everyone else did: she committed adultery.
This never sat well with me, this adaptation in particular: Joseph yelled at Mary, furious, and even roughly grabbed her by the face, not seeming to care very much about the fear that flew into her eyes. Another version, The Nativity, showed a very disappointed Joseph who first talked down to Mary, then had a dream where she was cornered by their neighbors ready to stone her (and Jesus in her womb), the first stone being placed in his hand as the “cheated husband”.
But…he knew Mary, as I’d imagine most of her peers knew her.
Did not one person wonder if something bad happened to her to put her in that state? Mary being who she was, wouldn’t anyone’s first thought be that someone took advantage of her, or worse, raped her?
If I were to set the scene, I’d imagine Joseph’s first reaction would be to approach Mary with a very loving, urgent concern. He would not be angry, or at least not at her. She probably was a bit nervous, gauging how Joseph would react; wouldn’t that give him all the more reason to suspect foul play? Then, I’d imagine he would be confused with Mary’s explanation, that this was God’s child she was carrying. Maybe he had the thought that she was attacked in her sleep and had no other explanation, or was so traumatized that she replaced the horrific with the holy, or just plain didn’t have the heart to tell him what really happened. But then…maybe he’d see her happiness and excitement when she talked about it, as she did when she sang for joy at Elizabeth’s house. He’d believe her, did believe her, but didn’t know what else to do than quietly break off the engagement to protect her and her child. Adultery would never even enter his mind.
In any case, it can’t have been an easy situation to be faced with. Mary was still looking at an unplanned pregnancy, one that almost prevented her marriage to Joseph. To make things worse, she lived in a culture where adultery was punishable by death, rape victims were disgraced for life (if their rapists didn’t marry them, what’s more), and as her parents had passed away (prompting this engagement in the first place), she would’ve been in an even more desperate place if he hadn’t married her anyways.
This makes her a friend to anyone who might find herself facing a difficult and/or unplanned pregnancy, for whatever reason. She’s a friend to anyone who was falsely accused of sexual deviance or adultery, as I and many other abuse victims have been accused. She’s also, I’ve found, a great comfort to anyone who lost children by, again, whatever reason; she takes them under her care in Heaven until we (God willing) meet them again.
On the note of abuse, I think it very important to note how Mary’s pregnancy didn’t happen, and wouldn’t have happened, until she gave her full consent.
We know this is true from the Annunciation, when God sent the angel Gabriel to tell Mary the plan to make her the Mother of God. He praises her as “full of grace”, and “blessed among all women”. Like a dutiful messenger, he waited for Mary’s reply to God, and the first thing she asks is a very practical and human question: “How? I’m a virgin.” Luke had mentioned that Mary was betrothed to Joseph at this point, so reason tells us that this was an odd question for her to ask…unless she planned to stay a virgin even when married, that is. Tradition tells us that she had consecrated her body to God since her childhood, and that Joseph shared that vow with her during their marriage. This question reveals that was the plan, and that Joseph most likely would’ve been aware of and respectful of her vow of virginity when he asked to marry her. Understanding all this, I’d imagine Mary was more asking whether God was telling her to forgo that vow of virginity to instead have a typical marriage with Joseph to “make” Jesus.
To this, Gabriel explained how this would work: the Holy Spirit would “pass over [her]”, and make the impossible happen, “for no word is impossible for God.” He further assures her by telling her about Elizabeth’s pregnancy, which was similarly miraculous; she was older, both she and her husband Zachariah were long pronounced infertile. Against all the odds, she was pregnant with St. John the Baptist. This settled the confusion Mary had, though I’d imagine she’d still be concerned about what would happen. It was an informed and brave decision when she said she’d do it; “Let it be done to me according to Your Word.”
To be perfectly honest, it wouldn’t have been a bad thing if Mary and Joseph had a typical marriage, having sex and/or any children together. I wouldn’t think any less of either of them, wouldn’t think Mary any less pure and whole. It just makes more sense that they didn’t, given the evidence. It goes further that at His Crucifixion, Jesus entrusted Mary to his friend John, and not to a brother or sister. Joseph had passed away, and as a widow, Mary would have depended on her other children to take care of her…if she had any. Jesus was saying here that John (and by consequence, all of us) is Mary’s child now by adoption. As the head of the household, he had that authority.
Despite what so many people have said over the years, the bottom line is that virginity is not, nor ever will be, a guarantee for holiness. It helps, sure; to not have the premarital sexual memory of another does help in the long run, and I can safely say having the sexual memory of anything that distracts or detracts from the loving, creative purpose of sex hurts. It isn’t the end result, though, nor does it mean someone who does have that memory is “defiled” without hope.
So, what about Jesus, after He was born? We all know the story about Christmas and the star, how they had no room at the inn with everywhere being stuffed full, save a little stable full of animals. He escaped with his parents to Egypt as a toddler, and at some point, went back to Nazareth, learning His father’s trade. He also went about His Heaven’s Father’s business, famously staying behind one Passover in Jerusalem to teach in the temple (much to His earthly parents’ dismay!).
…It is mysterious, that Jesus, God, chose such a family setting for Himself, especially in the inclusion of St. Joseph. Mary was easy enough a choice for a Mother. God the Father could’ve easily provided for His Son and for Mary, but no; He wanted St. Joseph there as His father, as Mary’s husband. One has to wonder if Joseph ever felt out of place; he had original sin, had sinned in his life. Jesus probably would have taken after Mary entirely, having no biological father to get half of His DNA from. That’s who God wanted to be His father, though, to show Him by his example what it means to be a man.
One also has to wonder what He learned from St. Joseph’s example, apart from his carpentry job. Maybe a habit or quirk? The way He laughs? The way He comforts people, seeing how he might’ve comforted Mary? How he faced death, as he disappears from Jesus’ story when He begins His ministry? That much has been lost to time, and more’s the pity. If anything, I’d say He learned how to be humble, and to listen, from both of His parents.
Whoever your parents might’ve been or not, whatever kind of family you had or not, the Holy Family gives a very curious and comforting picture to think on. There’s just so much there for so many people. Married, single, virgin or not, parents, children, foster or otherwise atypical families, orphans, widows/widowers, single parents, infertile parents, social outcasts, etc. One has to remember too that though they were dirt poor, all three members are of royal blood via David; all social classes could look up to them. Even though David was, in many respects, a rotten king past his Goliath/King Saul stage, he was part of the family, redeemed by this little family of three, and ultimately, like all of us, by the Redeemer.
Holy Family, pray for us.