[“The Holy Family” by Rembrandt, 1634]
I recently heard a story about a man named John. The recent economic crisis really hit John hard. John works for an insurance company, and 40% of all that he has worked for and built up over the last 20 years has disappeared overnight. Just to pay the mortgage and buy food John had to tap into his children’s college funds, and his 401k retirement fund isn’t even worth looking at. Like so many people in our country right now, financially things are looking very grim for John.
Three of John’s close friends are in very similar situation. Before this economic crisis hit, John and his three friends had planned to make a pilgrimage to Rome. All four men have been devout Catholics their entire lives, and for years they had planned to make this pilgrimage. They had everything planned when the economy went down the tubes, so they were thinking about canceling their trip. Looking at their bank accounts, the pilgrimage was not worth it. However, looking into their hearts, with the prayerful support of their wives, they knew that the pilgrimage was worth it.
So John and his three friends spent a week in Rome. They did not stay at a fancy hotel, but at a simple religious house. They spent the week visiting the beautiful, ancient basilicas and churches, and looking at the priceless collection of art in the Vatican museum. At every stop, they found themselves deeply moved by the thought that behind everything they saw was the deep, ancient faith of patrons, priests, artists, bricklayers and stone masons who had given their time, talent, and treasure for the glory of God.
The highlight of the trip for John was visiting the “Scala Santa” or Holy Stairs. These are the marble steps of Pontius Pilate’s presidium, where he passed judgment on Christ. St Helen had shipped them from Jerusalem in the fourth century, reconstructing them in a small sanctuary in Rome. For more than a thousand years, pilgrims have visited this site by climbing the stairs on their knees as they pray the Way of the Cross. “It was when I was climbing those steps on my knees,” John said, “that I realized there’s so much more to life. There’s Someone who accompanies us.” (This Illustration was adapted from an article published by Goodnews.org, a service of www.catholic.net).
Isn’t that the point? Whether we are experiencing the weight of the Cross, or the whiff of Heaven’s sweet scent, what really matters is not the things in our lives but rather faith in Jesus Christ. It is our faith in Jesus Christ that gives meaning and purpose to everything that we do. Material prosperity and hardship come and go; the love of Christ is forever.
We learn something about this from today’s Gospel. It was customary at that time in Israel, for women to remain isolated for a period of time after childbirth. While some have seen in this the woman being considered unclean, because of the blood involved in childbirth, but there was a deeper, spiritual reason for this time of separation from the community. It was in deep recognition of the value of each human life. The Israelites recognized the truth that childbirth was something holy. In giving birth, the woman was participating intimately in a mystery that touched God directly, because God alone is the creator and sustainer of all human life. For the Israelites, it would be improper for a woman to engage in normal activities after participating in so holy a mystery. Like Moses, who had to keep his face veiled after speaking with God, a woman after childbirth needed time away from the ordinary to allow the “glory of the Lord” to fade from her. The ritual of her purification, which is recounted in today’s Gospel, is like the purification of the chalice and ciborium after Communion; after being a vessel of the Lord’s Body and Blood, the purification makes them for ordinary activity.
The sacrifice that Mary and Joseph offered for her purification was not the specified lamb and pigeon. It was two pigeon, the sacrifice that those who were poor would offer because they could not afford a lamb. The Son of God did not just humble Himself by taking on our human nature, but He was born into a poor, humble, working class family that struggled to make ends meet. Mary, the Queen of Heaven and Earth, lived as a simple wife and mother on a modest budget, knowing how to stretch a meal. Joseph, the patron of the universal Church and the greatest of all the Patriarchs, had to work hard just to keep bread on the table. No big bank account, no impressive investment portfolio, or expensive vacations. The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph had to watch every copper coin; yet they were the richest of all families. Their wealth was not in money or material possessions, but in faith.
Money is certainly useful for life, but it should never be the main ingredient of life, and the Holy Family reminds us of that. Without faith, it is possible to have a lot of money and still be thoroughly miserable; just look at King Herod, or in any tabloid. With faith, it is possible to have very little money, and yet to live a thoroughly meaningful and joyful life, as the Holy Family did. And there are several things that we can do to help us keep Faith primary, and money secondary.
First we can create a budget. A budget helps us prioritize our material needs. It is often amazing how much we spend on things we really do not need. Second, we can make sure that we regularly eat meals together as a family. This helps us turn a material need into a spiritual reality. Can you imagine the meals that Jesus, Mary and Joseph must have had. A family meal helps us relax and build relationships, and conversation helps us learn from each other. Finally, we need to make time each day for prayer, especially time reading the Sacred Scriptures. This is how we get to know the Someone that John and his friends experienced crawling up the Holy Stairs. This is how we speak with Jesus heart to heart.
This is how we protect our faith and make it grow. And that’s what really matters, because, as the Church is reminding us today, true, lasting wealth doesn’t come from money, but from faith.