In Pope Francis’ recent exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, he concludes with a prayer to the Holy Family. The first part of the prayer reads, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, in you we contemplate the splendor of true love; to you we turn with trust.” In just those few words, we are reminded of the importance of the Holy Family; they are the perfect reflection of true love. They exemplify to us what it means to love God and one another.
Of course, it might be wise to first ask ourselves, “What is true love?” The dictionary defines it as a “strong affection for another” (Merriam-Webster). The author Victor Hugo once equated love to joy when he said, “The greatest happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved” (Les Miserables). For our purposes, let us take the definition straight out of the Gospels, that “no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:18). True love, then, is self-sacrificial. Having true love does not mean that we live to seek the best for ourselves. Rather, it means that we actively seek the best for others.
Using this understanding of true love, it becomes clearer how each member of the Holy Family exemplifies those qualities. St. Joseph is commonly known as the silent man of the Gospels in that he is never quoted. Yet, we see episodes that testify to his goodness. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that when Mary became pregnant, Joseph wanted to divorce her quietly to spare her from any shame. Nevertheless, he ended up taking Mary into his home at the urging of the angel (Matthew 1:18-24).
During this period of time, Mary as a pregnant and unwed mother was extremely scandalous. Joseph would have had every right to publicly humiliate her and cast her aside; in fact, accepting her in her state would have brought notoriety to himself. Yet, he took her into his home. He was willing to sacrifice his own reputation to show his devotion to Mary and to her son, an act of true love.
Mary, similarly, shows sacrificial love at the message of an angel. Luke’s Gospel tells us that the angel of the Lord appeared to her and announced that she would bear the “Son of the Most High” (Luke 1: 32). Mary was a teenager, just betrothed to Joseph. Before the arrival of the angel, she was assured a quiet life, a peaceful life. Accepting this message would change everything; Mary’s life ahead would be a vast unknown. Nevertheless, she simply replied, “I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1: 38). Mary showed true love by sacrificing herself in order for the Son of God to enter the world.
And, of course, it does not take much effort to think of a moment when Jesus displayed true love. In dying on the cross, he destroyed death itself; as the tomb was closed, he opened the gates of Heaven. His willful sacrifice is the ultimate example of “laying down one’s life.” Thus, each member of the Holy Family demonstrates to us, what it means to truly love. In Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict reminds us that “Love is the light – and in the end, the only light – that can always illuminate a world grown dim” (Deus Caritas Est, 39). As we move forward into the New Year, let us use the example of the Holy Family as our inspiration and bring a bit of light to our world. By being willing to sacrifice some of ourselves each day for the sake of others, we too can become models of true love.
Victor David is a collaborator with the Catholic Apostolate Center and a staff member at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.