Opening the Word: Fearing the Holy Family

A few weeks ago the state of Washington allowed an atheist organization, Freedom From Religion Foundation, to set up a sign in the Legislative Building next to a "holiday tree" and a Nativity scene. "At this season of the winter solstice, may reason prevail," read the large sign, "There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds."

Even more remarkable were some of the statements from the head of the foundation, including his comment that "we see the Nativity scene as a direct attack on good human values." He added: "On that Nativity scene, there is this threat of internal violence if we don't submit to that master."

While I can see how atheists might be fearful of the existence of a righteous, holy God, it is curious when an atheist essentially confesses to being fearful of a baby in a manger -- a baby surrounded by his mother and father, some animals and some shepherds.

It is perplexing when a representation of the Holy Family is construed as an attack on "good human values." And yet there is an element of truth in that strange remark. The Incarnation, if it really is true, displaces man from the center of his tidy universe. It is a light of revelation -- to quote the righteous Simeon, from today's Gospel reading -- that reaches into every nook and cranny of man's darkened heart. In the end, no one can be indifferent to God's entrance into history: We must either accept it or reject it, believe it or deny it, bow low before it or raise our fists in anger against it.

If Mary truly is the Virgin Mother of God and Joseph really is the foster father of the Son of God, then "good human values" simply aren't enough. Being nice, obeying the law and living the good life fall short of what God calls man to be, which is nothing less than sons of God. "Christ stands at the heart of this gathering of men," the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, "into the 'family of God'. ... Jesus calls all people to come together around him" (No. 542).

The Second Person of the Trinity always knew who his mother and foster-father would be. "Christ chose to be born and grow up in the bosom of the holy family of Joseph and Mary" (No. 1655). They were the first disciples of their Son, and Mary is honored as the Mother of the Church.

Mary and Joseph took the infant Jesus up to Jerusalem and the Temple to fulfill the requirements of the law of Moses. This was so that Mary -- who was perfectly holy and immaculate -- might observe the customary prescriptions for ritual purification. And it was so that Jesus -- who is God Incarnate -- might be consecrated to the Lord. In these ways honor was shown toward the law given by God and the Temple built for God.

And it provided an opportunity for Simeon to hold the newborn Emmanuel -- "God is with us" (Mt 1:23) -- and to utter these prophetic words, which cut like a perfectly honed blade down through time: "Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted -- and you yourself a sword will pierce -- so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed."

The Incarnation did bring internal violence to this world, launching a direct attack on sin and death. But it is only a threat to those who wish to live apart from Christ, cut off from divine life, separated from the family of God.

Carl E. Olson is the editor of