REFLECTIONS ON THE LIFE OF JESUS, MARY, AND JOSEPH
FRANCIS L. FILAS, S.J.
Imprimi Potest: Leo D. Sullivan, S.J., Praepositus Provincialis Provinciae Chicagiensis
Nihil obstat: Joannes A. Schulien, S.T.D., Censor librorum
Imprimatur: Moyses E. Koley, Archiepiscopus Milwaukiensis Die 15 Januarii, 1947
Part Two is here.
Actually it should strike us like a thunderbolt to read in Holy Scripture that Jesus was like us in all things, sin alone excepted (Heb. 4:15). Only too often, however, our appreciation of the fact of the Incarnation is dulled because we do not realize vividly that true God became true man.
In proportion as the divineness of Christ impresses us, His humanness tends to recede into the background of our minds, and we lose the benefit of that tremendous attractive power of knowing that God walked our earth in human form nineteen hundred years ago.
In parallel fashion we are prone to be left cold by the sanctity of Mary and Joseph. The dizzy heights of their holiness draw our eyes upward. hut our feet remain fixed in the chasm scooped out by our sins and imperfections. We are afraid to call Mary and Joseph our own. We are afraid to imitate them.
That is why we should make every effort to think of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph as living in our world: close to us, real, our best friends, human and understanding, whom no fault or misfortune can drive away, provided only that we try to model our lives on theirs. Once we know the actual conditions in which the Holy Family lived, once we see the human world in which Jesus, Mary, and Joseph spent their family life, we can more easily appreciate their holiness.
What was the environment of the Holy Family? We are all naturally curious on this score; but over and above mere curiosity, we ought to seek out the details of the careers of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in order to persuade ourselves how closely they resemble us.
There is no need to go to the mass of pious but unhistorical legends that have grown up around the early life of our Lord. The gospel story is more than enough to paint the essentials of the picture we are seeking. If we amplify the Gospels with data gained from other reliable sources, the pageant of the Holy Family passes before our eyes with all its winsomeness and charm.
It would be well at the outset to explain the sources from which we learn the nature of the Holy Land scene amid which Jesus, Mary, and Joseph passed their lives. For one thing, the Gospels are full of deft touches referring to details of their times. Archeology, too, uncovers the well-preserved ruins of age-old buildings; from it we can deduce customs and culture.
Best of all, there is the present oriental civilization which has changed little throughout the centuries. Houses, dress, implements, food, and social usages have withstood the changes that repeatedly revolutionized our Western way of living. Combining all these facts we gain a rather detailed and highly probable estimate of life in the Holy Land two thousand years ago.
Palestine, which derived its name from the Philistines of Old Testament times, is surprisingly small. Lying at the southeastern end of the Mediterranean Sea, it is only 150 miles long from north to south. The Jordan River cuts it roughly in half as the river courses south from Lake Genesareth (the Lake of Galilee) to empty itself into the Dead Sea.
We are more concerned with the western half of Palestine, for most of the life of the Holy Family was spent there. This section varies greatly in width. In Judea in the south it is 60 miles wide, but it grows more narrow until finally at its northern extremity in Galilee its width is hardly 25 miles. Western Palestine is only half the area of the state of Maryland–5000 square miles. It would fit ten times within New York or Illinois, fifty times within Texas. Except for its coastal plain along the Mediterranean, it is quite hilly, and a few mountain-tops can usually be discerned along the horizon.
Because the traveling described in the Gospels was so often done on foot, we think of the distances as far greater than they are in actuality. Nazareth in Galilee in the north is 75 miles from Jerusalem in Judea in the south. Bethlehem is five miles south of Jerusalem. All in all, the territory which the Holy Family covered by slow and tiresome journeys of days can now be traversed by a fast airplane in a matter of minutes.
In the white Christmas scene so popularly represented Palestine’s climate is not pictured correctly. Snow falls rarely during the winter, and even then it melts within a few hours. The winter months–November to March inclusive–should more properly be called the rainy season. The average temperature of the coldest month, January, is only forty-six degrees. From April to October the hot “dry season” sets in, but evening breezes and heavy morning dews are sufficient to temper the worst heat of this summer.
The crops and other vegetation of the Holy Land are influenced, of course, by its climate. In the time of the Holy Family there existed numerous forests and terraced vineyards. These have long since disappeared because of the shiftlessness and misrule of the Turks from the Middle Ages down to World War I. Consequently, erosion and denudation of the land can be seen where formerly many a Palestinian family–and probably our own Holy Family–raised small truck gardens to help stock the household larder. Near-by farms grew mainly wheat and barley. Other crops consisted of corn, millet, spelt, lentils, beans, flax, and sometimes cotton. Rice was not yet introduced.
One of the most interesting facts we can learn about Jesus, Mary, and Joseph concerns the kinds of food they ate. The gospel accounts intimate that they followed the customs of their times. Other historical sources as well as incidental references in the Bible tell us what those customs were.
The usual meals were two: a midday dinner and an evening supper, which was the large meal of the day. Breakfast was too scanty to be called a meal. It was no more than a cup of milk, a piece of butter, or a few baked cakes with olive oil. Wooden spoons might have been used instead of our modern silverware, but more likely eating was done with the hands.
Bread, as always, was the staff of life, and was made of barley, various kinds of wheat, or lentils. Mary baked her bread each day as it was needed, although she could purchase it from the town baker if she wished. She formed it into flat circular cakes about an inch thick and nine inches across.
For an oven she used a clay- lined hole in the ground or an earthen or stone jar about three feet high, inside which fuel was placed. Baking took place on the outside of this portable oven or on the hot inside of the clay hole once the embers were removed. In preparing her bread our Lady did not use new leaven each day but kept a portion of the old dough from day to day with which to start fermentation in a new batch.
The rest of the diet of the Holy Family was made up largely of vegetable food. Olives and olive oil, butter, milk, cheese, eggs, and stewed fruit helped out this menu. Meat appeared rarely on the table, and then it was mutton and beef.
Relish consisted of onions, garlic, or leek. For the equivalent of our present-day dessert, figs, mulberries, pistachio nuts, almonds, and pomegranates were available. Grapes were served either fresh or sun dried as pressed cakes of raisins. Cucumbers were an ever popular vegetable.
Mary’s ordinary way of cooking food was to boil it, but she occasionally roasted meat and broiled the fish from Lake Genesareth much as her Son was to do for His apostles after His Resurrection, years later. Often on the menu, this fish was considered quite a delicacy in Galilee, and was pickled and dried to be preserved. In preparing corn Our Lady parched or roasted it at the fire. Lentils and beans were boiled into a delicious pottage, often with meat seasoned with mint, anise, cummin, or mustard.
For sweetening Mary used wild honey instead of sugar. The salt she bought was either rock salt from the shores of the Dead Sea or that evaporated from the water of the Mediterranean.
The two beverages on the table at Nazareth were goat’s milk and wine. The butter made from this milk was sometimes solid, sometimes merely semi-fluid heavy cream, sometimes the thick curds from sour milk. Our Lady did the churning herself by jerking a skin of milk back and forth or by beating the container with a stick. The wine was kept in large goatskins in the cool cellar of the house. From these it was drawn off into smaller goatskin “bottles” for use at table.
We can hardly repeat often enough the value of knowing these homely details of the life of the Holy Family. Jesus referred to some of them in various of His parables or sermons, and showed how well He was acquainted with everyday life in Palestine.
Could we ask for greater assurance from God that His gifts are good, and that we should use the good things He has given us in this world as helps to obtain our salvation and perfection?
“The Holy Family lived in a plain cottage among other working people, in a village perched on a hillside. Although they did not enjoy modern conveniences, the three persons who lived there made it the happiest home that ever was. You cannot imagine any of them at any time thinking first of himself. This is the kind of home a husband likes to return to and to remain in. Mary saw to it that such was their home. She took it as her career to be a successful homemaker and mother.”
-Fr. Lawrence G. Lovasik. The Catholic Family Handbook https://amzn.to/2XHhW5N (afflink)
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