Immanuel Kant’s essay, What Is Enlightenment, explains for the modern world what “enlightenment” means. To be enlightened, he says, is to become entirely independent in thought. Children grow up depending on others for everything, of course, and even for their thoughts and opinions, but to be enlightened means that one throws aside childish dependence and thinks entirely for oneself. Something about the claim rings true, especially for our ruggedly individual age.
Yet without saying so explicitly, Kant’s position casts the family as a necessary evil. We have to grow up in families, but they train us to live below our dignity by thinking like slaves. To reach human perfection is to shake off the effects of family life.
Yesterday’s feast and today’s solemnity remind us that the family is a path to enlightenment; that childhood as such is a path to humanity and even beyond; that the bonds between parent and child are bonds indeed, but not fetters.
Along these lines, let me toss out three mysteries relating to the Holy Family:
- A parent can stand in for the child’s own will.
This is just a natural reality, but isn’t this a remarkable thing? When my son had a life-threatening medical condition, I had to decide—on his behalf—what would be done to his body, what course would determine all. Before my children were ever aware of their surroundings, I chose where they would live, and consequently what nation and what state would claim their citizenship, and as a result what laws they would be under. Extending this natural reality, I even committed my children to God through baptism, and by so doing I brought on them all the obligations of a Christian. It is an astonishing and wonderful thing that one human person can be so entrusted to another.
- The child Jesus had both a divine and a human will.
When I teach about the mystery of the Incarnation, students are typically ready with the formula they learned in their catechisms: Jesus is one divine person in two natures, one divine and one human. But they are typically shocked by the obvious implication that Jesus has a divine will and a human will, two roots of love, two ultimate centers of desire. Of course, even Jesus’ human will is the human will of a divine person: the life of the Word of God extends into time and space through the Incarnation, such that anyone who has seen the man Jesus has seen the Father. Consequently, the love of the Word of God is replayed in the love of the man Jesus: this man loving the Father is God’s own Son loving him through a human nature! A human nature has been caught up into and, so to speak, included in the inner life of the Trinity.
- The previous two mysteries together make a third.
Joseph acted as foster father and Mary as the natural mother of the child Jesus. When they circumcised him—an event commemorated as part of today’s feast, according to the current Martyrology—they chose God on behalf of the Word of God. When they committed Jesus to the faith of Israel, they turned toward the Father on behalf of his own Son. They were caught up into the mystery of the Incarnation, and for the brief period of his infancy they stood in for the theandric will of the God-man. Now that just makes this parent break out in goose bumps.
God be praised for the family! God be praised for the mystery of the Incarnation! God be praised, I say, for the mystery of the Holy Family.