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A Death in the (Holy) Family

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As we enter Holy Week, it seems as though we are more ready for it this year, and more open to its meaning. We are in Covid time; we have seen and borne suffering. We are isolated by sickness or precaution. We have seen the toll of illness and death; we have lost loved ones, or we know people who have been bereaved.

We can use our sufferings in prayer and reflection to understand more fully the suffering of Christ.

I have been thinking of Christ’s Passion in light of the Holy Family. Though Jesus suffered his bitter agony alone, his mother, Mary, was there with him. The Stations of the Cross place her along the path that Jesus walked on his way to Calvary. The Gospel of John tells us that Mary stood at the foot of the cross, remaining with Jesus until he died.

In this year dedicated by Pope Francis as the Year of St. Joseph, I am thinking, too, of the spouse of Mary and the foster father of Jesus. Scripture scholars believe that Joseph died before Jesus began his public life, and therefore well before the Crucifixion. But Joseph must have played a role in the Passion. The lessons that Jesus learned from Joseph must have prepared him for his public life, and especially for its final act of obedience to his Father: the sacrifice of his life for the redemption of humanity.

The Bible does not record any words of Joseph, but his actions speak eloquently. When an angel appeared to him in a dream and told him to have no fear, and to take the pregnant Mary as his wife, he obeyed. When an angel told him to take Mary and the Infant Jesus and flee to Egypt, he did so. Joseph’s obedience to God must have set an example for the young Jesus long before he said to his Father, in anguish but also in faith, “Not my will, but yours be done.”

As a carpenter, Joseph must have taught his trade to Jesus. They must have worked side by side, wielding their tools, shaping wood into plows, yokes, chairs, tables and other objects. We hear often in prayers and spiritual writings, especially in Holy Week, of “the wood of the cross.” The same material that Jesus, trained by Joseph, used in his work would become the material upon which Jesus hung in agony, but which was transformed from the instrument of his death to the bearer of life, the means of our salvation. We line up to venerate the crucifix on Good Friday; if the pandemic prevents our doing so for a time, we can venerate the crucifixes in our homes. Whether or not they are made of wood, they are a reminder of the wood that bore Christ the carpenter.

It was from the cross that Jesus spoke the words that gave Mary to all people as their mother, with St. John standing in for all of us as Jesus said, “Woman, behold, your son,” and to John, “Behold, your mother.”

Mary suffered her own agony, watching her Son die, and she did so alone, as a widow. Yet as she lost her Son, she embraced the motherhood of the human race. Soon after her Son spoke those words, Mary would hold his dead body in her arms until Joseph of Arimathea took the corpse to lay it in a new tomb. There the body would lie from that Friday evening until early on Sunday morning, when the Resurrection revealed that Jesus’ work of redemption was complete.

On Good Friday night and Holy Saturday, it is good to remember that Jesus really was dead. His spirit, of course, was alive, but his body had perished. He not only shared our human life; he also took it upon himself to die, as we must do. Now, resurrected, he offers us a share in his divine life, through the sacraments and the life of the Church.

Despite our present sufferings, that is reason for hope and joy, and reason to celebrate a happy and blessed Easter.

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