Finding Joy in Messiness

Last Sunday, it was Gaudete Sunday! Gaudete, of course, means “Rejoice!”

During our homily, our priest asked us: “What makes you joyful?” And of course, that is a fantastic question to ask ourselves! For one, it helps us reexamine our relationship with Jesus (does He truly make you joyful, or do you need to engage with Him and deepen your relationship with Him through prayer before you can get to that level?). For another, it helps us reexamine our lives.

And that is always beneficial!

For me, as I was contemplating this, one of the biggest joys in my life is my family. Right now, as I type this sentence, I can hear my 3-year-old daughter talk to my 19-month-old son upstairs, telling him that she can’t carry him downstairs, but soon she’ll get older and become “big and strong” and then she’ll be able to carry him! And that makes me happy, listening to them play and giggle with each other.

And finding joy in family is not uncommon! After all, as we go headlong into Advent, we find ourselves celebrating the joy of the Holy Family as they received Jesus into their own family and welcomed Him into the world. Many of the pictures of the Holy Family depict them looking adoringly at each other in pure joy.

But, of course, sometimes family can be… messy. When I started writing this blog entry, I had to stop and break up a fight. And, just when writing this line, I had to stop writing this to get an ice pop for my daughter, since she hurt her mouth. And now that I’m restarting writing this blog, after making lunch, mandatory nap time has started. And trust me. It’s mandatory for a reason.

And my situation is fairly tame, considering! Some of you who are reading this are probably going through some major family difficulties right now, to the point where the words “joy” and “family” don’t even seemed linked anymore. Family can be a messy, messy thing.

And that’s one reason why I love this picture:

Christ in the House of His Parents, by John Everett Millais, c. 1849-50. Tate Britain, London, England.

It’s a picture of the Holy Family… but it’s a little bit different than most of the pictures of the Holy Family. For one, it’s not an idealized moment that looks straight out of a Hallmark Card. It’s messier.

The Holy Family, as well as St. Anne (Mary’s mother), a young John the Baptist, and a young assistant are spending time with each other, helping Joseph out in the shop. But, Christ hurt His hand from an exposed nail and there’s blood going everywhere, including dripping on his foot. So, Mary is consoling Him, Anne is removing the exposed nail, John the Baptist is getting water to clean up the wound, Joseph examines the hand, all while the assistant observes the scene.

Back in its day, this was a hugely controversial painting. It was just too messy. First off, a huge problem for many of the art critics back then was just how messy the workshop was. There are wood shavings everywhere! There are boards stacked against the walls. It’s clearly a workshop that has been used, which was a long way off from the idealized house that the young Christ was often displayed in!

The next thing that the art critics hated were the appearances of the Holy Family. They’re not… gorgeous. In fact, they look poor and rather ordinary. Charles Dickens himself even wrote a scathing criticism where he said that Mary looked like an alcoholic! Other critics blasted the painting because they said the Holy Family looked as if they had rickets or other diseases that were associated with living in the English slums.

Yet, looking at the painting with a modern perspective, it seems to be quite reverent. For one, there is such great symbolism that helps make this a wonderful, devotional piece that focuses you in on the Gospel. There’s the wounds of Christ, which remind you that He will die for us in His Passion later in His life, with His Mother by his side, once again helpless to ease His suffering in any significant way. There’s John the Baptist, coming with water as a reminder that he will be the one who baptizes Christ later on. There are the carpentry instruments on the wall, the triangle reminding us of the Trinity and the saw almost looking like a harp. There are the sheep that peer into the scene, reminding us that Jesus is the Good Shepherd. There’s the dove resting on the ladder, the dove symbolizing the Holy Spirit while the ladder reminds us of Jacob’s Ladder, reminding us that through the Holy Spirit we may ascend to Heaven.

So, there’s lots of powerful images in this picture!

But I think the overall message in this artwork is this: though there is clearly a lot of chaos going on, there is still lots of love. Everyone in the family is doing its best to care for Jesus, whom they all clearly love. Even though it’s messy, even though there’s pain, even though everything seems to be going wrong and Mary and Joseph are probably trying to stay calm and remember first aid as Jesus bleeds everywhere, there is still love.

And I think that’s something we need to remember as well. When things don’t go right and everything wrong seems to be happening all at once and we’re ready to put up the white flag and give up, we need to remember that love is more powerful than all of these. And, as long as we are courageous enough to love, even when things look grim, God will be with us.

And where God is, there is joy.

 

Questions to Ponder:

  • What was the first thing that you noticed from the picture?
  • Had you seen this picture outside this website, which is pretty much dedicated to examining religious art, would you suspect that this is a religious picture? Why or why not?
  • In what ways have you encountered messiness in your life? Have you ever encountered joy, even in these messy times?

 

Dear Jesus,

Help us align us with You so that we may have joy in our lives.

Amen.

This is one of the pictures that is featured in my new book, The Joyful Mysteries, which pairs every prayer of the Joyful Mysteries with classic religious art. Interested? Take a peek at it here!

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