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 One is here.
Another personal detail that is highly interesting to us is the appearance of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.
Following the customs of their day Jesus and Joseph had three types of garments. In a climate so mild as that of Palestine no more were necessary. The innermost garment next to the body resembled our modern nightshirt and was called a sheet or sindon. During strenuous labor other clothing was discarded in order to permit freedom of action. Thus, for example, when some of the apostles were fishing “naked” on the Lake of Galilee at the time Jesus appeared to them (John 21), they were actually clad in this undergarment. In other words, to wear only this sindon was to be in a state of undress.
Over the sindon Jesus and Joseph wore the tunic–a sort of cassock or dressing gown open down the front. This made up the usual indoor costume at home or in the shop. A wide sash or girdle at the waist and rather billowy long sleeves gave the garment pleasing lines. For freedom in walking, the ankle-length skirt was slit about a foot from the bottom on each side. Blue was its common color although white with brown stripes or red, too, were favorites.
The third and outermost article of clothing was the cloak. The foster father and his Son wore this cloak outdoors for protection against cold and rain, or as a covering during sleep. When made of fleece it was especially warm, although cotton and woolen cloth were more usual. It resembled a vest in that it was sleeveless and had an open front, but in length it reached almost to the ground. Either this cloak or the tunic was the valuable “seamless garment” for which the soldiers cast lots when Christ was crucified on Calvary.
For headdress Jesus and Joseph wound a sort of long kerchief into a turban. Another kerchief covered the neck and shoulders for protection against the blazing sun. In Nazareth as in all the Orient it was considered disrespectful to pass anyone bareheaded, so the two men must have worn the turban almost always.
They were bearded and wore their hair long, as paintings universally represent them. Two locks–ringlets–dropped from their temples as a vestige of the old Hebrew tradition whereby the Israelites were distinguished from idolatrous peoples who cut these locks as an offering to their gods.
For foot covering the Holy Family used sandals during the summer and shoes during the winter or rainy season. The ordinary sandal consisted of a wood or leather sole with thongs attached, to be strapped around the instep. Shoes were made of coarse material and protected the entire foot. Socks were seldom if ever worn. Since footwear was prescribed strictly for outdoor use, it was always left at the entrance of the house.
Mary’s dress resembled the attire of her menfolk rather closely. Her distinctive mark was a veil and (for outdoor use) a mantle or great shawl. Judging from the colors usually employed, she wore a red dress with a blue mantle and a large white veil covering her whole body when she traveled in public. Her hair fell in long tresses, probably left unbraided, as it was more modest to do.
From our knowledge of Palestinian houses we can deduce rather closely the nature of the home of the Holy Family at Bethlehem and Nazareth. At the outset, however, we must rid ourselves of the preconceived notions which Western experience and legendary tale have given us.
Palestinian houses followed a rather uniform pattern. Like the present-day houses at Bethlehem, that of the Holy Family was probably built of rough-hewn limestone blocks cemented with limestone mortar. It had at least one upper room, built above a lower room at street level, and reached by outside stone stairs. The dimensions of these rooms approximated 15 feet in length, 12 feet in width, and 6 feet in height.
The lower room at Nazareth may well have been St. Joseph’s workshop, extending back as a cave into the hill rising directly behind the house. Artisans like St. Joseph worked in the street outside their shops. The shops themselves were merely places to keep equipment.
The living room of the Holy Family (the upper chamber) was windowless and very simply furnished. Its only light came through the doorway. There was no fireplace or chimney, but a hearth placed near the door provided a spot for cooking where the smoke could easily escape. On a ledge running around the wall the gaily colored mats which were spread on the floor at night for sleeping purposes were rolled up during the day.
A large lamp hanging from a center beam shed a dim light at night- -a rather curious looking lamp to us. It resembled a saucer with its sides folded together at one place, to form a neck for the cloth wick that rested in the supply of olive oil. Underneath this lamp was a painted stool or table together with a few chairs. Here the Three took their quiet meal.
The roof of their house was flat–a cemented or earthen surface overlaid on the beams that spanned the side walls. It was reached by the outside stairway. During the cool evenings of the summer Jesus, Mary, and Joseph retired to it for conversation and quiet prayer. They used the roof much as we use a front porch or veranda.
Joseph’s position as carpenter placed him in the respectable middle class of artisans. Judging from his occupation, he was not desperately poor, nor on the contrary could he be called wealthy. His tools were the hammer, saw, ax, plane, chisel, and bow drill.
Working in wood, he was a general handyman for making plows, milking tubs, winnowing fans, yokes, forks, and household furniture. Joseph on many occasions did not receive pay for each article as he fashioned it. Instead, he agreed under a sort of “blanket contract” barter system to look after the farm implements of his neighbors in so far as was necessary. In return for these services he received produce from his various customers at harvest time.
At this point we close our introductory picture of daily life with the Holy Family. One feature in particular stands out: Jesus, Mary, and Joseph lived a genuinely “human” life, using the good things of this earth as was proper. There was no puritanical refusal on their part to accept the blessings of God’s creation as if these gifts were evil in themselves. Rather, the inherent bounty of Nature gave them ever so many opportunities to praise and thank the eternal Father in heaven for what He saw fit to bestow on them according to His wisdom and providence.
This is a lesson we, too, should bear in mind. Everything God has created is good in itself, and evil and sin enter only in the misuse of a creature. The great rule of life is always the same, whether in the Holy Family of Nazareth or the Jones family of twentieth-century Smithville: Because all creation is good, we should make use of it in so far as it helps us to serve God and to save our souls.
“What a simple rule to remember!” you say. “How easy to live by! Why call it to my attention so sharply?”
Why? Because the cold pages of history testify that scores of heresies crashed, morally bankrupt, since they rested somehow or other on confusion of this truth of the goodness of creation. Before Christ came on this earth, the pagan world was in moral chaos because it could not accept the fact.
It could choose only between the two extreme errors. One group of pagans–the Stoics–thought that creation in itself was evil, and everything material must be avoided completely. Others held that creation could not be misused in any way whatever. These men represented the two excesses of human conduct that continued to harass the Church’s efforts later.
For instance, in Christian times there were heretics like the Manicheans of the second century, the Albigensians of the twelfth, and the rigid Calvinists of the sixteenth, who frowned on legitimate pleasures and looked on material things as evils to be tolerated at best if not to be shunned absolutely.
However, such a mode of living was impossible for a man made up of body and soul. It was an insult to the wisdom and goodness and love of his Creator, and it could lead him only to unhappiness, sin, and despair. One primitive heresy built on this philosophy of the anti- material (the Docetist group) even taught that Christ’s body was an appearance, that He was only a phantom, because as God He could not possess so evil a thing as a human body!
At the other extreme in all ages were the frankly materialistic pleasure seekers, who sank into all sorts of excesses in reveling in utter license and luxury.
Meanwhile the Church serenely kept pure the truth which Christ had confided to its charge, dauntlessly guarding it even though it conflicted violently with the extremists. Catholics were always taught that man is composed of soul and body; that the body is not something sinful although tendencies to sin are present in it because of original sin; that material things are to aid the body directly and the soul indirectly in order to attain man’s purpose in this world and in the next; and therefore that creation should be used (because it is good) but not misused (because it is only a means to eternal life, not eternal life itself).
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