As the Church begins the season of Advent, and Catholics repeat the familiar ritual of setting up their crèches, the humble figures of Mary and Joseph kneeling before the empty manger remind us of God’s desire to entrust his only Son to two human beings, a woman and a man, wife and husband.
They were poor, and the world shut them out, as Joseph begged for a comfortable room where Mary could deliver the Child. But God did not see their material poverty as an impediment to his plan for the salvation of the world. Indeed, the man and woman’s loving obedience to his will — as testified by Mary’s fiat and by Joseph’s acceptance of the Incarnation — revealed their worthiness. Their love for Yahweh served as the wellspring for their own steadfast love and provided a rich sanctuary for the Christ Child.
Mary and Joseph remained side-by-side, nurturing and protecting the Son of God as he “grew in wisdom.” Yet Scripture hints that they are asked to play distinctive roles. Mary watches and listens to all the wondrous events that accompany the birth of her son. When the shepherds and Wise Men find the Holy Family, writes Luke, the visitors “made known what had been told them about this Child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”
Joseph, for his part, receives messages from angels, who direct him to take action to protect his family. The Gospel of Matthew tells us, “An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt; and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night and went to Egypt.”
Joseph does not survive to see the Passion. That is the responsibility of Mary, the New Eve, who stands before the cross as her son begs the Father’s forgiveness for his tormentors. But even if Mary’s role in the economy of salvation takes greater prominence, the Church has never ceased revering the holy fatherhood of Joseph.
There was a time in our country when we expected to see the crèche, with all of its assembled figures, in the public square as well as in our churches and homes. Legal challenges by secularists and others have effectively stamped out the public placement of crèches in many localities.
Now, as the culture rethinks the nature of family life and questions whether a permanent and faithful union between a man and woman is even possible, the humble figures of Mary and Joseph may draw skepticism and even scorn in coming years.
Still, the figures assembled in this Nativity scene, which will be completed with the coming of the Christ Child, call us back not only to the mystery of the Incarnation, but to the very origins of creation itself. For the communion of the man and the woman, crowned with the presence of the Holy Child, points to the very wellspring of love, the Holy Trinity. “Let us make man in our image,” Yahweh states in Genesis, reminding us that we are made to find fulfillment not in seeking our own way, but in discovering a common path.
The figures of the crèche remind us of this deep calling, and they underscore the truth that there is a “unity in difference,” as St. John Paul II described it, between the man and the woman who share the dignity of each person made in God’s image but also possess their distinctive gifts of masculinity and femininity.
During a November colloquium in Rome that invited religious leaders, academics and lay couples from around the world to address the experience of sexual complementarity between a man and woman across cultures (see Vatican story on page 5), Pope Francis underscored the connection between married and Trinitarian love.
“To reflect upon ‘complementarity’ is nothing less than to ponder the dynamic harmonies at the heart of all creation. This is the key word: harmony. All complementarities were made by our Creator, because the Holy Spirit, who is the author of harmony, achieves this harmony.”
He further noted that the complementarity of man and woman “is at the root of marriage and family, which is the first school where we learn to appreciate our own and others’ gifts and where we begin to acquire the arts of living together.”
Pope Francis acknowledged that marital harmony can prove elusive: “Families are places of tensions: between egoism and altruism, reason and passion, immediate desires and long-range goals. But families also provide frameworks for resolving such tensions.”
He also cautioned that the complementarity of a man and a woman did not suggest that “all the roles and relations of the two sexes are fixed in a single, static pattern. Complementarity will take many forms, as each man and woman brings his or her distinctive contributions to their marriage and to the formation of their children — his or her personal richness, personal charisma. Complementarity becomes a great wealth. It is not just a good thing; it is also beautiful.”
Mary and Joseph, the young woman and man who wait before the manger in our homes and in our churches, affirm the beauty of this daily path of married love — this school of virtue — and they testify against “the culture of the temporary,” which, said the Pope, has wreaked the most havoc in poor communities.
“The crisis in the family has produced a crisis of human ecology, for social environments, like natural environments, need protection. … It is, therefore, essential that we foster a new human ecology and advance it.”
During this Advent, may Nativity figures inspire us to foster and embrace the distinctive gifts we share in our marriages and spur us to help others, especially families in crisis, see their own salvation in the steadfast love of Mary and Joseph.