A missing child: every parent’s (second) worst nightmare. We remember the scene from Tom Sawyer when a grief-stricken Aunt Polly cries herself to sleep, calling out for “my Tom.” When he finally appears—at his own funeral—she doesn’t quite know how to react: jump for joy? Praise God? Kiss Tom? Spank him? Collapse in relief? The answer is: why choose? When life is at risk, it unleashes within the soul a “desperate” desire to protect and recover the beloved child, whatever the cost, whatever the peril. Such is family life and love.
Immediately after Christmas the Church celebrates the Feast of the Holy Family. We Roman Catholics call the family the ecclesiola, the “cell” of the Church. Every choice we make, from the books we read, the professions we enter, or the culture we tend, is meant to nourish and sustain this most fundamental social unit. No wonder Catholic social teaching rejects any system (e.g. Leo XIII’s critique of Communism) that corrodes the bonds between parents and children. Still, the family has a spiritual purpose; while a human institution, it bears within it the seeds of eternity; we are swept up into the Kingdom of God our Father with Jesus our Brother. The Holy Family illustrates the dynamic between Nature and Grace.
Today’s artwork for the feast of the Holy Family takes as its theme the joyful mystery: the Finding of the Child Jesus in the Temple. The painting is “Christ Among the Doctors,” by Luca Giordano, who was born about a generation after the death of last week’s featured artist, Michelangelo Caravaggio. Art critic Silvia Tomasi lists a number of nicknames for the artist: fapresto, famolto, and proteo; he worked speedily, produced a large body of masterpieces, and, like the god Proteus, could adopt, combine, and transform various styles of other artists. She also notes that, unlike the tragic figure of Caravaggio, Giordano was a success not only in his artistic life but in his personal life as well. He was a loving father, ardent Catholic, and successful entrepreneur. His career took him through most of 17-century Europe, creating images from Biblical and mythological themes, a “grand” style of ceiling painting called the apotheosis, to immortalize famous families (e.g. the Medici), and scenes from the lives of the saints. He was a forerunner of the “Rococo” style: lush landscapes, lively colors, and heroic action. In today’s work, we see a youthful Jesus, seated among the scribes in the temple, as Mary and Joseph look on from a distance. The Holy Family, at least to my eyes, seems to have been imported to a baroque academy of scholars, who furiously check their books against the words that flow from the young man positioned serenely above them. The reactions of the rabbis vary: some are entertained by Jesus’ youth; others seem confounded; one appears lost in thought, as though his deepest convictions were being shattered; others simply take notes; one who appears to be wearing a beret, looks on in awe.
As for Mary and Joseph, are they relieved to have found their son? Annoyed at the trouble he has caused? Astonished to witness his divinity unveiling itself before their eyes? Tomasi ends her article with what I consider a very Catholic notion of beauty: that for Giordano, “art is not the union of two immeasurable worlds, the divine and the human, but itself a world in outline: an endless work in progress.” Where does divinity pick up and humanity leave off? Perhaps only God knows the answer, but for the family that has Christ at its center, the best way to approach the question is through love.