Last week I wrote of how the nativity scene in Bethlehem sums up and celebrates the pro-life cause, illustrating the great dignity of the human person. Just as the Christ child, young and helpless, contains the fullness of the Godhead, so every human child is made in the image of that same God. Human dignity is not earned, it is baked into our very nature, the nature that God Himself chose to assume.
There is, however, another aspect of the nativity scene that always strikes me. And that is what I might call the extraordinary ordinariness of the scene. Now, it might seem paradoxical to call something “extraordinarily ordinary.” But that is how it seems to me: as if God chose to come into the world in a way that so ostentatiously unassertive, so remarkably unremarkable, so absurdly hidden and by-the-way, that we could not help but notice just how ordinary the whole thing was.
A husband, a wife and mother, and a baby. Poor people, forced to leave their home by bureaucratic government officials, unnoticed and unremarked by anyone of note or means, getting by as best they can in the poorest of lodgings. And then, as if to drive home the point, the Holy Family practically vanishes for the next thirty years, with only a single episode recorded, when Christ was twelve years old.
Think of this! God Himself walked the earth. The most Immaculate of His creatures lived among us, alongside the man who the Church now celebrates as the “patron” of the universal Church, regarded as the greatest saint next only to Mary herself – St. Joseph. And yet, it seems nobody who lived near them saw anything sufficiently remarkable that they thought it worthwhile to write down what they had seen.
Familiarity has made us callous to these details. We have looked upon the creche too many times. We have not exercised our imaginations, wondering what it would have been like to welcome a child – one foretold “to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel” (Lk 2:34) – into a cave, filled with common farm animals. We have not imagined what it must have been like for the Holy Family’s friends and relatives in Nazareth, meeting Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in the marketplace, or at the synagogue, or in St. Joseph’s workshop.
As a consequence, we have failed to ask ourselves this question: What did God mean to show us by this extraordinary ordinariness?
Blessed are the Meek
One need not look far into the Gospels to find hints or clues. The Beatitudes are a good place to start. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Christ teaches, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Or again, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:3-12)
But, in fact, almost the whole of Christ’s teaching converges on a similar message. Christ did not come preaching political revolution. He did not write treatises on government, or ethics, or economics. He did not show the way to accrue power or amass wealth. He obtained almost no earthly power, and whatever power He did obtain, He refused in the end to use, submitting Himself to the decrees of a petty governor whose hand was forced by a petty mob of hard-hearted religious authorities.
Instead, He was born into a poor family, in a poor town, and worked for 30 years as a menial laborer. Surely, one of the most remarkable sentences in all of Scripture is found in the Gospel of Luke. “Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them.” And with that, the Incarnate God bows off the public stage, disappearing from view until nearly two decades later.
So, what did Christ intend to teach us by this hiddenness? It would take a great deal of time to unpack that. But one thing all of this suggests to me is that (as the prophet Isaiah wrote) God’s ways are not our ways, nor are His thoughts our thoughts. Whereas “man looks on the outward appearance” of things, God “looks on the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7). Whereas we judge a man’s worth by the magnitude of his achievements, God looks inwards, and sees not the scope of the achievements, but the love with which they are performed.
The Dignity of the Family
This is of incredible relevance to our mission as pro-life and pro-family activists. It goes without saying that, to the extent of our abilities and calling, we must involve ourselves in pro-life and pro-family activism, pushing for good laws that defend life and the family, providing assistance to women, children, and families in need, educating the public about the evils of contraception, abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, eugenics, and artificial methods of procreation.
However, Christ Himself is our model and example, and He showed us that our public ministry must first be built on a foundation of stone – a foundation which is constituted of the willing embrace of ordinary hiddenness, lived with extraordinary love within the domestic church – the family. That is the method Christ followed, and it is the method that we must imitate. It is within the Holy Family, recounts the Gospels, that Christ “grew in wisdom and stature.” Such is the dignity of the family, that Christ Himself chose it to be the school of His education, the preparation for His earth-shattering public ministry.
In his encyclical Familiaris Consortio, Pope St. John Paul II, wrote:
Through God’s mysterious design, it was in that family that the Son of God spent long years of a hidden life. It is therefore the prototype and example for all Christian families. It was unique in the world. Its life was passed in anonymity and silence in a little town in Palestine. It underwent trials of poverty, persecution, and exile. It glorified God in an incomparably exalted and pure way. And it will not fail to help Christian families — indeed, all the families in the world — to be faithful to their day-to-day duties, to bear the cares and tribulations of life, to be open and generous to the needs of others, and to fulfill with joy the plan of God in their regard. (no. 86)
The Cult of Individuality
We live in an age that scorns ordinary goodness. Instead, our media, entertainment industry, and, increasingly, our schools, celebrate the perverse, the weird, the rebellious, the depraved. Common decency is increasingly under attack, while perversity and disfunction are lifted up and promoted.
Children are told that they must “express themselves” and “assert their individuality” by finding ways to “stand out from the crowd.” This isn’t necessarily bad advice, provided that the reason somebody stands out from the crowd is because of their conspicuous courage, or goodness, or virtue. But too often, our celebrities and thought leaders are equating being “different” with being anarchic, violently rejecting the ordinary, old-fashioned virtues and standards of good living in favor of the disordered, the vicious, and the absurd.
We now celebrate the cult of individuality. What matters are my desires, my appetites, my power and wealth and prestige and celebrity. Often, the result has been to destroy the cohesion of families, which are the building blocks of society, and the school of love.
Guided by this worship of the self, husbands have turned against wives and wives against husbands, children against their parents, and parents against their children. The cult of individuality has unleashed human appetites, fostering selfishness which is often expressed in sexual disfunction. Instead of ordinary virtues, we find our world increasingly filled with extraordinary vices. Many young people no longer even desire what was always viewed as “the good life” — a life of ordinary love, lived faithfully with one’s spouse and the children that are the fruit of that love.
Charity Begins in the Family
This cult of individuality, which is ultimately fueled by pride, can even infect otherwise good movements. Leaders in the pro-life and pro-family movements, who are fighting one of the most important battles in all of history, must constantly fight to resist the lure of trying to assert ourselves, the temptation of wanting to become a “somebody,” to be noticed and praised. These temptations can distract us, leading us to pour our energies out in ways that do not ultimately bring greater peace and love into the world, taking us away from our families, who ought to be the first beneficiaries of our love.
St. Teresa of Calcutta understood this truth, and continually urged her listeners to focus first on loving their families. Such a love is the necessary foundation for all other charitable activity. “Bring the word to the hungry and thirsting for God, starting with your own family,” she said. “Charity begins at home.”
Elsewhere she wrote:
Our first great responsibility is to be a family, a community, revealing first to one another something of God’s own love and concern and tenderness. ‘See how they love one another.’ Being so close to each other it is possible to miss God’s love and goodness that is to be found in those who are so near to us. We need to help each other to forget the everyday deficiencies and to start a new life every day in the joy of Jesus.
We are commanded to love God and our neighbor equally, without difference. We don’t have to look for the opportunities to fill this command, they’re all around us, twenty-four hours a day. You must open your eyes wide so that you can see the opportunities to give wholehearted, free service right where you are, in your family. If you don’t give such service in your family, you will not be able to give it to those outside your home.
Yesterday the Church celebrated the Feast of the Holy Family. Let us pray that our eyes may be opened to the example of Christ, who devoted the overwhelming number of His years on earth to quietly loving those closest to Him in humble hiddenness. This is, I think, one more lesson that Bethlehem has to teach us – that the ordinary is, in fact, the most extraordinary thing on earth. In the coming year, let us be resolved to throw ourselves with our whole hearts into the task of imitating the extraordinary ordinariness of the Holy Family, loving our families with a Christ-like love that gives unconditionally, and asks for nothing in return. I can think of no surer way of creating a Culture of Life, and fighting the culture of death, than that.