We celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family on December 30. One Spanish artist in the Baroque period, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, crafted several wonderful paintings of the Holy Family during his artistic career. Specifically, in the year 1650, he painted two works that bring us deeply into the life and spirituality of the Holy Family. Viewing and pondering these pieces of beautiful sacred art can help us learn some of the dynamics of their life, and equip us to bring these realities into our twenty-first century world.
The first piece of art is The Flight into Egypt. In this painting, Mary rides on the back of a donkey, gazing at the Infant Jesus in her arms. The bottom half of her body is covered by a green cloak, which the artist probably used to signify hope. The hope that Mary bore in her mind and heart allowed her to travel with serenity, which Murillo depicts beautifully on her face. We ought to ask for the grace, especially by Mary’s intercession, to always have serenity and hope in our minds and hearts, no matter our circumstances. Those of us who are diligently trying to raise holy families in the midst of modern culture surely know the necessity and benefit of that prayer.
Joseph walks alongside the Infant and Mary, guiding the beast of burden. He wears a brown cloak, which is used to symbolize his humanity and his virtue. We also notice that he carries another bag over one shoulder. Perhaps it is meant to symbolize what little this family had. Perhaps it also symbolizes the heavy weight that Joseph bears as father, leader, and protector of this family. Fathers and mothers both can connect with the reality of facing scarcity and feeling burdened. All too frequently we encounter the need to move forward despite our lack of resources, or when feeling the heavy weight of life’s details. Cultivating the Gospel virtue of poverty, as the Holy Family certainly did, is a great way to move beyond these feelings that rob us of joy and peace.
We should not move on from looking at Joseph without noticing his face. He looks quite weary and his eyes are turned toward Heaven. We can imagine that the lengthy journey from Bethlehem to Egypt would have taken its toll on his body and mind. Yet, we believe that Joseph’s righteousness and faithfulness brought him a diligent strength, even in the midst of mental and physical fatigue. No matter our family condition or the taxing stresses that come into our lives, we need to rely on our connection with God the Father, which will help us find stamina to continue the pilgrimage of family life. Thus, both of the figures in this painting show us how to react and relate to the Lord, even in the midst of life that keeps throwing curveballs and erecting obstacles.
The second painting by Murillo is The Holy Family with a Little Bird. This painting gives viewers a magnificent opportunity to reflect on some ordinary occurrences of family life. Specifically, it reminds us of the importance of family leisure time, time spent enjoying each other’s company and lounging, even if there is much work to be done.
Mary sits to the side, working at a spindle and next to a basket of cloth. Yet, she turns her eyes toward Jesus, and she is clearly in a moment of pondering things in her heart, as the Gospel tells us she did (cf. Lk. 2:19). This helps us to remind each of us that we can connect with the Lord even during our busy work. We can become contemplatives in action.
Next, we notice that Joseph is taking a break from working at his carpenter’s bench, which is in the background on the right. The father spends time with the toddler Jesus, supporting the Child as he plays and, perhaps, as he is learning to walk. In this moment, Joseph is completely focused on Jesus, and he bears a look of serene contentment on his face. Here, the dispositions of both Mary and Joseph remind us of the most important relationships that we have. They remind us that our spiritual lives and our family lives thrive when we prioritize the Lord and our children.
At the center of the painting, Jesus holds up a bird as he plays with the family dog. Specifically, the bird is a goldfinch, which foreshadows Jesus’ suffering. Suffering was always part of the Holy Family’s life together, from the flight to Egypt, to the death of St. Joseph, to the Passion and Death of Our Blessed Lord. Yet, even in the midst of suffering, these three lived in serene joy because they knew that they were living their vocation; that they carried forward God’s plan for the salvation of the world. In the midst of both physical and emotional suffering, each of us needs to ask Jesus for His grace to suffer well while continuing to move diligently toward our appointed purpose. And, we can ask Mary and Joseph to share the abundance of graces they received in their effort.
So, as we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family, let’s call to mind the paintings of Murillo and the lessons contained in them. Let’s call on the Lord and ask him to be at the center of our leisure and our stress. Let’s call on the intercession of the two who raised the Child Jesus. Let’s never hesitate to take a short break from work, just for prayer and play. Let’s recall that all of this leads us to the blessedness that God has in store for us, beginning in this life.