Icon of the Family

Reflection on the Holy Family (Icon of the Family)[1]

Often looked at in quaint terms, with romantic vision, the manger scene is a very important catechetical tool for Catholics.  What seems to be this idyllic scene of the Holy Family surrounded by oxen, ass, sheep, shepherds and magi is much more involved.  First we need to break the scene down because it is an accumulation of events; strip away the magi, they won’t be here until Epiphany; strip away the shepherds and sheep, they arrived later in the night.  What the scene now shows is the Holy Family alone with the oxen and ass – in a dirty manger – hidden from the world.

Biographers have noted that St. Francis wanted the oxen and the ass in the scene. He said to the nobleman of Greccio who was a follower “I wish to evoke remembrance of the child quite realistically, how he was born in Bethlehem, and of all the hardship he must have endured in his childhood.  I would like to see with my bodily eyes how it was, to lie in a manger and to sleep on hay between oxen and an ass.”[2]

What the scene makes real to our eyes among the hardship is the beauty, the simplicity, the faith, the aloneness together, the love within God’s family. In front of us is the icon of the family.  And history has shown, throughout all cultures that it is within this icon that the health of the family is strongest, and by extension the health of a society as well.

However, in recent times we now see the erosion of the icon of the family.  Society, or at least the elites within it would love to see the icon of family remain right where it started, hidden, out of sight of society.  Or if it can’t remain hidden then they will redefine the elements and try to make it irrelevant. Even some within Holy Mother Church have tried to, unwittingly I hope, minimize the current relevance of this icon of the family.

One argument goes like this: Historical as the icon of the family is, it needs to be retooled to fit the times and attitudes of today.  How can the Church be relevant if she can’t relate to her members and neighbors? Just this past October at the Extraordinary Synod convoked to discuss the family this line of thought came alive.  Within the discussions a variant on the principle of Gradualism was resurrected.  This principle champions the idea or policy of achieving some goal by gradual steps rather than by drastic change.  In our case the drastic change is the expectation of acceptance of the totality of the faith and its tenants. They would argue: why force our people to accept the tenants of the church, the values based on our faith, in total – let them gradually come to understand them and embrace them. In short – ignore some sin, in fact try to find something good around it, and hopefully get them to see the error of their ways.

Wilfrid Cardinal Napier, archbishop of Durban South Africa, in an interview this fall commented on the error of these Gradualism tendencies that raised its head at the extraordinary synod: ‘When you are holding up the bar of moral uprightness, you cannot at the same time, sing the praise of the contrary.[3]

With concern for this so-called pastorally compassionate line of thought Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia commented in a speech: “None of us are welcomed on our own terms in the church. We are welcomed on Jesus’ terms,[4] he said. “That’s what it means to be a Christian. You submit yourself to Jesus and his teaching. You don’t re-create your own body of spirituality.[5]

The icon of the Holy Family is not something that can be repainted.  Jesus’ ministry gave us the totality of God’s revealed truths.  Christ instituted sacraments and gave the protection of them to Holy Mother Church under the guidance of His Holy Spirit. As Catholics we have the expectation of being led in the faith by strong and wise shepherds. As Catholics we have the obligation to pray for these shepherds and to actively help them.  Our prayers are needed more now than ever.

Brothers and sisters, in our hearts let’s sit with the Holy Family in the manger in Bethlehem and ask our Lord, lying among the Oxen and Ass to guide us in living the true faith and proclaiming it to others.


[1] Inspired by a Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger article ‘An Ox and An Ass at the Crib’ 1978 that is included in the book Images of Hope.
[2] Ibid – quote attributed to St. Francis
[3] Wilfrid Cardinal Napier – Dec. 23 email interview with the National Catholic Register’s Rome correspondent,
[4] Charles Cardinal Chaput – Speech given for First Things Journal – October 2014
[5] ibid


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