Posted December 29, 2019
On Sunday afternoons, when I was a small boy, we used to attend what was called ‘Catechism’. (It was the Catholic answer to Sunday School.) The priest would ask us questions on the Penny Catechism. ‘Now, then, children’, the priest asked on one occasion, ‘who can tell me, who is the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity?’ A little fellow next to me put up his hand with great eagerness, I think probably because it was one of the few questions he knew the answer to, and he didn’t want to miss it. ‘Yes, Billy’, said the priest: ‘Who is the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity?’ ‘St Joseph!’, Billy cried out, glancing around for signs of admiration, but instead getting howls of laughter. For young as we were, we knew that he had confused the Blessed Trinity with the Holy Family. ‘Father, Son and Holy Ghost’; ‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph’. It’s easily done when your mates are at Sunday School and your mind is on conkers.
Though maybe, just maybe … yes, looking back, I think Billy had a subtle strategy. He gave the wrong answer deliberately, to provoke theological discussion. He wanted to suggest that there was, after all, a close relationship between the Blessed Trinity and the Holy Family: indeed, between the Blessed Trinity and any family. We didn’t take him up on it at the time, since our minds were on conkers too, but you often find with great teachers like Billy, they sow the seeds, and years later the question returns and begins to bear fruit.
I think what Billy had in mind was first of all the fact that God is in essence a communion of persons. ‘The Father and I are one,’ Jesus says in St John’s Gospel. Now there are two things to notice about this statement. First, the word ‘one’ has to be taken in the strictest possible sense, so strict a sense, in fact, that when we talk about two human persons being one (like husband and wife, or mother with child) it can only be a mere hint at what Jesus meant when he said ‘The Father and I are one.’ There is a oneness in the Blessed Trinity that transcends even the closest conceivable union between human persons, so that when God speaks to us, God can use the first person singular: ‘I am one, and there is no other’, as God says in Isaiah.
At the same time, the Father and the Son are distinct persons, not just the same person in two different guises, but two persons, otherwise the whole of the New Testament and the whole of Christian doctrine make no sense. And we have not mentioned the Holy Spirit, who is also a distinct person, yet one with the Father and one with the Son, indeed, is that divine person whose love is the Father’s own infinite love enfolding the Son and returning to the Father as the Son’s infinite love. All this is too much of a mystery for us: transcends all human thinking, so that we are best advised simply to adore, be silent and rejoice, knowing only that there at the heart of all reality, as the eternal source of all life and joy, is a communion of persons united in love. I dwell on it in my imagination, I feel it in my heart, I look forward to it as my final destiny: but to reason about it, to put it into words, no, that is not possible: only silence will do. (This would explain, incidentally, why Billy hardly ever said anything, another point on which, looking back, we all misjudged him.)
Billy must also have remembered a remarkable statement made by the author of the Epistle to the Ephesians. Falling on his knees before God the Father (his typical posture in the first three chapters), this author speaks of: ‘God the Father from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named’ ‒ which, being translated into English means: ‘God the Father who is the origin of every family in heaven and on earth.’ The Greek word for ‘family’ is related to the Greek word for ‘father’, and sounds like it, so there is a play on words, which reinforces the author’s point that the family has God’s Fatherhood as its dynamic source. God the Father, who eternally generates the Son and with the Son eternally breathes forth the Holy Spirit in the inner life of God, is the same Father who brings into being the human family, as an extension, as it were, of his divine activity in his inner life. So the human family is the reverberation of the life of the Blessed Trinity, the reflection of that eternal union of persons that is God himself.
The purpose of today’s Feast of the Holy Family is to get us to contemplate this sublime reality brought down from heaven, so to speak, and planted in Nazareth. God’s inner life became flesh in the family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. (Yes, there’s Joseph, where he should be: demoted, somewhat, after his unsolicited promotion by Billy, but happy enough with his rightful place.) And that means a very human, very ordinary daily life of practical love and devotion, around the kitchen sink, at table, in the carpenter’s workshop. This incarnation of the divine life in the ordinary life of the family is brought out very vividly by the author of Ephesians when, having spent the first three chapters contemplating the sublime realities of heaven, he turns to everyday practicalities at the beginning of chapter 4, urging us to live a life worthy of our calling, and then later exhorting us: ‘Be imitators of God as his beloved children.’ He then goes on to advise us how spouses should treat each other, how parents should treat their children, and how children should behave towards their parents. He is explaining to us how we are to mirror forth the life of the Blessed Trinity in mutual love and self-giving in the ordinariness of our families.
Husbands and wives, parents and children: It is your vocation to foster in your family such mutual love and generosity, such wisdom and seriousness, such joy and tranquillity, that something of God is always felt among you, always consciously fostered, always there to shine through to the world. Live lives worthy of your sublime vocation. In union with Jesus, Mary and Joseph, be imitators of God, as his beloved children. How lovely, how wonderful, for spouses, for parents and children, for brothers and sisters to be able to tell each other in heaven: We helped one another become sharers in the life of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
That’s what Billy meant, surely.
Fr Tom Deidun