The Holy Family

The Feast of the Holy Family

In New York City’s Metropolitan Museum there’s a painting by the 15th century Italian artist, Andrea Mantegna, called “The Adoration of the Shepherds,” which portrays two shepherds coming from the hills to see the Christ Child. They’re wearing tattered clothes, and from their rough faces you can tell they’re not quite sure what to make of the Child they see. Mantegna pictures the Child Jesus laying on a great rock–not in a manger– enfolded in the dark blue cloak of Mary, his mother, who kneels before him.

Off to the side is St. Joseph, in a bright yellow cloak, with his head in his hand, leaning on a dead tree stump, fast asleep. Years ago, when I first saw this painting I thought it was strange to see Joseph asleep at this dramatic moment, just when the shepherds arrive. Why is he sleeping? (

As the gospel reminds us, Joseph is the one to whom the angel speaks in dreams, while he is sleeping. And so, picturing him sleeping, the artist wants us to remember the questioning Joseph, who’s looking for answers about the Child and his role in the Child’s life.

Of course, the angel gives him some direction. “Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” “Take the child into Egypt.” “It’s safe, take them back to Israel.” But the angel’s answers were few. For the most part, Joseph and Mary were on their own.

In other words, they lived by faith, with plenty of questions.

That’s the way most of us live our lives, too, by faith with plenty of questions. That’s especially true about family life today. Plenty of questions, and not many answers.

Why get married anyway? Why have children? Is marriage between a man and a woman? What about gay marriage? What’s a father’s role, a husband’s role, a mother, a wife’s role? What are the rights and responsibilities of children? What should government do for families?

There are plenty of questions in our society about family life today.

Yes, we have some answers, but in an unstable society like ours we can’t expect to be perfectly secure. Perhaps our best security is the promise we have from the Child whom God sent into the world. He will give us wisdom and courage to build our families as he wills. Be patient, and don’t be afraid. Live with your questions.

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