What does it mean to be “holy” as in the “holy family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph”? We use this term a lot, e.g., “Holy Communion”, “Holy Day of Obligation”, “Holy Matrimony”, “Holy Eucharist”, “the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass”, “Holy Mary”, “the Holy Land,” but do we know what it means for something to be “holy”? This is a good question to ask, especially if we want to “grow in holiness”, i.e., if we want to become more “holy”. We often see “holiness” as the practice of the virtues, manifesting good traits, and doing “good” things or good works. But doing good things does not make one “holy.” That is not what defines holiness. Holiness does not depend on our actions or efforts, first and foremost, but on God’s initiative. Our “holy” actions are a response to God’s action in our life.
In its biblical roots, “holy”, from the Hebrew word “Kadosch”, meant being separated from the secular or the profane so as to be dedicated to God’s service. Israel was said to be “holy” because it was God’s chosen people. It is God who chooses and sets apart. God sets in motion his plan for salvation by choosing a particular man, Abraham, whom he calls by name. The reading from Genesis recounts the initiative that God takes. “The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, saying, “I will make your reward very great.” God makes a promise to Abram, “your own issue shall be your heir.” Abram finds this word of the Lord preposterous because he is an old man and his wife Sarah is way beyond child-bearing years. Abram and Sarah doubt the Lord, but even still, “The Lord took note of Sarah as he had said he would; he did for her as he had promised.” Sarah becomes pregnant and bears Abraham a son, Isaac. God reveals himself to be faithful and merciful. God is faithful to his promise even when we don’t trust him. God’s mercy is made known in the gift of a son. God’s mercy is not some abstract or “spiritual” truth but something they can touch and see. So any time they might again be tempted to doubt God’s promise of mercy, they only have to look at their son. God’s mercy is a fact. It is for this reason that Abraham, “when put to the test, offered up Isaac” even though it was promised to him that it would be through Isaac that descendants shall bear his name. In this sense offering up Isaac was a reasonable thing to do, because, if God could give him a son when he was “as good as dead” in his old age, then “God was able to raise even from the dead”. The sacrifice of Isaac would not stop God from fulfilling his promise. What would seem totally crazy to someone else, is reasonable to Abraham because Abraham has received a great mercy. He is aware that he has been chosen by God, i.e., called by God. God has a preference for him. There is not a “reason” for it that Abraham can see. It is not based on Abraham’s goodness that God took this initiative in his life. But Abraham has to respond to this initiative. The response is faith – recognizing that it is God who has done this. God has chosen me. God is present in this event. “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; he went out, not knowing where he was to go.” He is not following blindly a set of directions but responding to a personal presence. He goes out because “he thought that the one who had made the promise” – the one who called him – “was trustworthy.” One is holy because God has initiated a relationship. The one who is “holy” trusts this relationship – trusts that they belong to God. For the holy person, this “belonging” to God is what defines their life because it is through this relationship that they have been gives new life. They “go out” eager to discover how the Lord will continue to keep his promise even when the path forward seems impossible.
This is the case with both Mary and Joseph. Mary was chosen by God. Joseph was chosen by God. Both were “set apart” for a sacred purpose, but both had to choose or to say “yes” to what, according to their measure, is impossible. They say “yes” to what they would not have chosen on their own. They have to recognize and to accept that they have been chosen and that what is happening is possible with God. This holy family endures trial and hardship from the indignity of giving birth in a cave for animals to the flight into Egypt. Because of the fact of the birth of her son, Mary can consent even to the sacrifice of her son on the cross, certain that this sacrifice would not stop God from fulfilling his promise.
The family is the primary place of holiness because the family is formed by relationships initiated by God. We can choose our friends, but we don’t get to choose our family. We don’t get to choose our parents. We don’t get to choose to be born. We don’t get to choose our siblings. We don’t even “choose” a spouse as much as recognize and say “yes” to the person God has chosen for us. All these relationships are given to us by God. We are chosen to be part of a family. In these relationships with spouses and children, parents and siblings, our faith is put to the test, almost constantly, but when we remember the mercy and the grace present at the beginning – that our life is a grace or a gift because we were “chosen”, we can go out again in hope with the certainty that “the Lord remembers his covenant for ever” – that the one who has called me is trustworthy. In Paul’s exhortation to the Colossians to be compassionate, kind, gentle, patient, and forgiving to one another, he begins by reminding them that they are “God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved.” He then reminds them of the Lord’s initiative in their lives and that they have been “called” by God. “As the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do…. And let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one body…” Our ability to live the virtues flows from our awareness of being chosen and responding to Christ’s initiative – his grace in our lives. Whenever I am having a challenging day and what lies before me seems impossible and beyond my capabilities, I think about the amazing route I took to become a priest – how God worked this out is a way I didn’t foresee and couldn’t plan. So if he got me here in a surprising way I didn’t plan, it is reasonable to keep on going forward when what I see doesn’t make sense or seems impossible according to my measure. In a similar way, I have several relatives who have marriages that fell apart, but what keeps them from becoming bitter toward their ex-spouses or despairing in their difficulties is that they see the concrete fact of their children’s lives – the gift that their children are that would not exist if not for that man. Whenever we are tempted to discouragement, we have to look at the facts that are signs that we have been chosen, wanted, and beloved of God. The example that the Holy Family gives us is to present what they’ve been given to the Lord. They offer the mystery they’ve received to the Lord. This child is theirs, but he belongs to the Lord and has been given to them to bring about the fulfillment of God’s plan. They are faithful to God’s call and obedient, that is, open to God’s initiative. Let’s ask Holy Mary and St. Joseph to help us to say “yes” to the mystery entrusted to our care, offering the sacrifice that is asked of us, even from our poverty. For when we receive Him with open arms, we are able to go forth in peace according to his word.