Thursday, January 01, 2015

The Holy Family as an Earthly Image of the Trinity

Happy Feast of Mary Theotokos!

During the Christmas break--and yes, it is still Christmas! (which means I'm still building Legos with my kids)--I've been reading through the 16th-17th century Jesuit Cornelius A Lapide's commentary on the Gospels. This commentary, popularly known as The Great Commentary, is a masterpiece of post-Reformation biblical scholarship that should be read by every modern New Testament scholar and, frankly, anyone interested in the history of Gospel interpretation. The commentary on the Gospel of Matthew alone is 1200 pages! (For New Testament scholars, A Lapide's commentary is basically a 16th century 'Davies and Allison'.).

In A Lapide's commentary on Mary being found with child "of the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 1:18),  I was fascinated to discover that he spends a great deal of time explaining how the Holy Family of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus are an earthly image of the Trinity. Here's what he has to say on the symbolic (or spiritual) sense of this verse:

"Symbolically, in this marriage and family union of Joseph with Mary there was an image of the sacred Trinity. For Joseph represented the eternal Father, the Blessed Virgin the Holy Spirit, both because she was the most holy, and because she had conceived by the Holy Spirit. Christ represented Himself, even the Son of God. Hence, as there is in the sacred Trinity essentially one God in three Persons, so here was there one marriage and one perfect family, consisting of three persons, namely, Joseph, Mary, and Christ... This family was then, as it were, a heaven upon earth..." (Cornelius A Lapide, S.J., The Holy Gospel according to Saint Matthew, 1:18 [trans. Thomas W. Mossman; Loreto Publications, 2008, p. 30)

Notice here how A Lapide  anchors his analogy between Mary and the person of the Holy Spirit in the fact that Christ is conceived "by the Holy Spirit" (ek pneumatos hagiou) (Matt 1:18). Intriguingly, as Michael Barber has pointed out, there also is a parallel in the original Greek between Matthew's description of the generation of Christ and earlier verses in Matthew's genealogy. For example, Salmon "begat" (egennesen) Boaz "by Rahab" (ek tes Rahab) and Boaz "begat" Obed "by Ruth" (ek tes Routh) and David "begat" Solomon "by the [wife] of Uriah" (ek tes tou Ouriou) (Matt 1:5-6). At the end of this long string of genealogical formulae, the "begetting" (genesis) of Jesus Christ" takes place "by the Holy Spirit" (ek pneumatos hagiou) (Matt 1:18). (A Lapide does not, however, mention this verbal parallel in his commentary.)

As anyone familiar with Trinitarian theology knows, there are numerous analogies that have been proposed over the centuries to help give us insight into the inexpressible mystery of the Trinity (Some better than others). I cannot stress too much that when it comes to analogies for the Trinity, the dissimilarity is of course always greater than the similarity. 

However, the analogy between the holy family and the Trinity has three particular strengths. First, it revolves around an actual trinity of persons in relation with one another, arguably the central revelation of the mystery of the Trinity. The three persons of Joseph, Jesus, and Mary, moreover, are not in just any kind of relation, but that mysterious, intimate, spiritual and permanent relation we call 'family' (compare Ephesians 3:14-15).

Second, the analogy of the Holy Family is arguably stronger than the analogy of ordinary families because the relations between the persons of Joseph and Mary are virginal, not sexual. Although ordinary families can of course also be images of trinitarian love, because of the virginal conception of Christ, the holy family is a unique and preeminent earthly image of the supernatural and purely spiritual love of the Father, Son, and Spirit.

Third and finally, the analogy the holy family also has in its favor the fact that Christ is of course actually, and not merely symbolically, a divine person. So there are solid grounds for seeing in his life an earthly image of his divine Sonship.

Cornelius A. Lapide, who was never one for novelty, traces the Trinitarian analogy of the Holy Family at least as far back as the work of the late 14th-early 15th century chancellor of the University of Paris, Jean Gerson, an extremely influential philosopher and one of the theologians at the 16th Ecumenical Council of Constance (A.D. 1414-18). (And a very happy and kind looking fellow!)

                                                                  Jean Charlier de Gerson

Gerson once wrote: 

O, how delectable to the Trinity, Father, Son , and Holy Ghost, was that house's trinity, Christ, Mary, Joseph! Nothing dearer, nothing better, nothing on earth more excellent. Heaven envied earth such inhabitants--inhabitants more befitting heaven than earth." (Jean Gerson, Sermons on the Nativity, cited by A. Lapide)

The analogy of the holy family is one well worth contemplating, especially during Christmastide. If you want to explore further, a great place to go--and the book that first introduced me to the familial analogy--is Scott Hahn, First Comes Love: Finding Your Family in the Church and the Trinity. Then, if you want to really dive in, I cannot recommend highly enough the 19th century German theologian Matthias Scheeben, Mysteries of Christianity, and Matthias Scheeben, Mariology.

                                                         Matthias Joseph Scheeben

As we move into the year 2015--which will culminate the Synod on the Family called for by Pope Francis--may the holy family inspire us all to ask God to give our families the grace to also become, insofar as possible, little "heavens upon earth"--living images of the love of the Trinity for a world desperately in need of it.


Lee Gilbert said...


Thanks very much for this post, copies of which are going to the Three Carmels of Jesus, Mary and Joseph in Valparaiso, NE, Elysburg, PA, and Kensington, CA.

Brant Pitre said...

Thank you!
When you send it along, please ask the Carmelites to pray for me and my family!