The earliest images I have had of the Holy Family came from prayer cards that were (shall we say?) idealized: Joseph gently rocking a plane over a board, Mary sitting and knitting, Jesus playing with the wood curls Joseph was creating. One detail still stands out in my memory—not a one of them was breaking a sweat. Somehow, I think there’s a disconnect between that image and the lived reality. Even Norm Abrams breaks a sweat, and he has a table saw and powered lathe…
The primary market-town near Nazareth was Sepphoris, about 5 miles away. Whatever Joseph was making (and it might well have been timbers for houses or frames for beds), it had to be taken there (hopefully by ox-drawn cart), and surely from an early age Jesus would have helped with loading and unloading and walking the 10 total miles of a round-trip journey. I’m sure if they weren’t bringing the goods of an advance sale, they were praying they’d not have to bring anything back to Nazareth!
So Jesus would have been, early on, a “gofer,” and soon after he’d be a full-fledged apprentice, with Joseph teaching him the use of the tools of the trade. He also was known, after all, as “the carpenter” as well as “the son of the carpenter.” Jesus’ (and Joseph’s) hands and feet would have been heavily calloused.
What of Mary? She was spared some heavy lifting, but she was emphatically not spared heavy labor. She would be responsible for at least a portion of a garden that might well have been shared by friends/extended family. She would be responsible for taking sheep’s wool, spinning it, weaving it into blankets and clothing. And she would be expected to prepare meals while doing all of this.
So a fundamental characteristic of this family is work—just as it is for our families. Some of it would surely be toilsome, but it would be able to be transformed into activity of great dignity, provided one additional characteristic were added—love. This is what makes Jesus, Mary, and Joseph a distinctly holy family—the Holy Family. The depth and quality of their love makes them special. But love in our own families can make us “holy families,” too. We celebrate them as we want them to be models for us.
Pope St John Paul II wrote an important encyclical about work: Laborem Exercens. In it he praised two human activities that allow us to transcend ourselves: love and work—both at their best producing things that take their existence from us and become themselves on their own terms. Here is the basis of our celebration, and here is the goal of our own families’ lives. Let’s live this life to the full.