This article was originally published in The Catholic News Herald of the diocese of Charlotte.
I recently visited Washington, D.C., and was able to attend Holy Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. With more than 80 chapels and oratories honoring the Blessed Virgin Mary, there is a great deal to see at the basilica. Behind every pillar, around every corner, and every time you look to the ceiling, there is some of the most beautiful sacred artwork found this side of the Atlantic.
With such an abundance of beauty and moving imagery inspired by Our Lady, there was one piece in particular that struck me the moment I saw it and which has stayed with me. Descending to the lower level of the basilica, right at the bottom of one set of stairs, is a near-life-sized bronze statue representing the Flight into Egypt. Backed by a large cross shape, the statue depicts the Holy Family at rest during their arduous trek down to Egypt as they fled the wrath of King Herod. In the center, the Virgin Mary sits upon a rock, her head leaning back in exhaustion, the Infant Jesus asleep in her arms. To the left of her, St. Joseph sits on the ground, curled slightly with his head resting on his knees. His bare arm wrapping around his legs shows the defined muscles of a hardworking laborer, a man capable of protecting and defending his young family in that foreign land. On the other side of Mary lies their trusted donkey, looking as ex-hausted and grateful for the rest as its human masters.
There is a vitality to this statue that draws you into the scene. The robe of the Virgin Mary seems to be blowing slightly in the wind, and you can almost feel that dry, sandy desert air. The muscles in St. Joseph’s arm show the strain and the strength required to navigate the difficult terrain, to lead and care for their animal, and to guard the precious mother and Child in his care. The exhaustion that is clear in their faces and bodies shows the stress and hardships they have endured in such a brief period for their young family, as the Infant in Mary’s arms is not much larger than He would have been in the stable at Bethlehem. To have such a young Child and be forced to flee to a foreign land, to travel through wilderness and desert with only a poor donkey to relieve the burden, to be surrounded by strangers and an unknown culture and uncertain future.
However, I’ve found that this very self-abandonment and trust in God is where I have discovered the most fruit in mediating upon this period of the Holy Family’s life. In his autobiography, “Treasure in Clay,” Venerable Fulton Sheen discusses the nuanced meaning of Poverty of Spirit in reference to the Beatitudes. The original Greek term used by the Gospel writers implied not necessarily abject poverty or destitution, but referred rather to those who survive on the bare minimum, roughly living paycheck-to-paycheck in today’s terms. Sheen was emphasizing that it is not lack of wealth or possessions that is important, it is reliance on God’s provision. When you don’t have a surplus to fall back on during hard times, you are forced to rely on God’s grace to get you through.
This kind of trust and reliance on God is perfectly modeled in St. Joseph and the Virgin Mary, as they traveled into the unknown and later when they settled in their humble home in Nazareth. The Holy Family never lived in wealth or abundance, yet their trust in God was complete and their blessings were beyond measure as they spent every day in the presence of God Incarnate.
As we enter into the Lenten season, the Flight of the Holy Family can be a helpful gateway into our own time in the desert with Our Lord. We aren’t necessarily able to spend 40 days in fasting and prayer all on our own, but we are able to use this time to abandon ourselves to the Lord, to see that it is not in material comforts that joy is to be found, and to grow closer to our families and loved ones. Men can look to St. Joseph as a model of true manhood in his quiet devotion and strength in protecting those under his care. Women can look to the Blessed Virgin Mary as a model of true womanhood in her trust in the Lord and in her tender nurturing of the Child. We can all look to the Lord in how He humbled Himself to be born a defenseless Infant, reliant on the love and care of others, and in how He did this willingly and out of the greatest mercy and compassion for us and for our sinful state.
Sacred artwork such as that found at the National Basilica is so important to our faith, for it engages the senses and draws us deeper into the mysteries of God. Statues, paintings and stained-glass windows are more than just decorations for our churches; they are an invitation to contemplate the scenes and the saints they depict. Our own diocese is graced by many beautiful churches to enrich our faith and give witness to the glory of God. Even as we humble our-selves and enter into the desert of the Lenten season, let us also remember God’s goodness and the beauty that He both creates and inspires.