When God comes into history, all the details of the story are important. In the details, he’s trying to tell us something. When God entered history, he entered by way of a family — the Holy Family of Nazareth. He could have chosen other ways to save the world, but he didn’t. He’s God, and he chose the best way. But what was it like, in God’s own family home? It’s hard to say, at first glance. Though the Gospels provide rich details about the events surrounding Jesus’ birth, they offer only one anecdote about his childhood. So tradition has come to call those years the “hidden life” of Jesus. Some early Christians were frustrated by this silence, and so tried to fill in the blanks with spectacular stories. In the so-called “Infancy Gospel of Thomas,” the fictional Jesus breathes life into toys in order to outdo his friends; he stretches beams in his father’s carpentry shop when the wood comes up short; and he strikes dead a teacher who dares to punish him. In another book, called the “Arabic Infancy Gospel,” Jesus turns his cruel playmates into goats. According to the pseudo-Thomas, the boy’s neighbors lived in constant fear, moving St. Joseph to cry out: “Don’t let [Jesus] go outside the door, because anyone who angers him dies!” There are good reasons why we don’t find such stories in the Bible. The church rejected them as untrue, and indeed they don’t seem to reach the standard of miracles set in the real Gospels. Superboy of Nazareth worked wonders to achieve revenge, gain professional advantage and ward off those who would attack or insult him. None of this jibes with the Jesus we know, who worked miracles in order to serve others, and who patiently endured insults and even violence at the hands of his neighbors. No, we can be fairly certain that Jesus spent his childhood doing nothing spectacular. St. John tells us that Jesus performed his first miracle when he changed water into wine at Cana, and we can take his word for that. How can we learn? Yet since God entered history by way of the family, surely we must model our own family life on his family life. How can we ever learn from what we cannot begin to see? The Catechism of the Catholic Church draws a simple conclusion from the scriptural evidence: “During the greater part of his life Jesus shared the condition of the vast majority of human beings: a daily life spent without evident greatness, a life of manual labor. His religious life was that of a Jew obedient to the law of God, a life in the community”(CCC, n. 531). And other spiritual writers say that we can draw out a little more. We know that the family of Jesus was steeped in Scripture. Mary’s prayer, the Magnificat, is rich in Old Testament quotations. We know that Jesus’ family had a deep life of piety that included pilgrimages and prayer to the angels. Both Mary and Joseph were accustomed to receiving the guidance of heaven’s messengers. From Jesus’ adulthood we can also glimpse the prayer life he learned from his parents. He prayed the morning offering of pious Jews (Mk 12:29-30). He prayed spontaneously. He took time to pray alone. Yet he also prayed with his friends. Jesus fasted and marked holy days. All these habits he probably acquired from his home life in Nazareth. We know that work was important to Jesus’ family. In adulthood, he was called not just “Joseph’s son,” but “the carpenter’s son.” Joseph was skilled in a trade that was highly regarded in his day, and he trained Jesus in the same craft. We can conclude from Jesus’ preaching that Mary was industrious and frugal in keeping a house. It was likely from her example that Jesus drew many of his favorite stories: a woman finding just the right cloth to patch a piece of clothing, a woman setting aside leaven for tomorrow’s baking, a widow searching her house for a lost coin. Ordinary life Hard work, struggling to make the bills, taking long road trips, praying simple devotions — all of this we learn from the real Gospels. It’s a far cry from the divine Dennis the Menace who drives his father crazy by turning the neighbors into goats. It’s so … ordinary. And that’s probably what makes it scary. We can understand why those long-ago yarn-spinners preferred to think of the Holy Family as a sort of benign Addams Family. If we emphasize how different they are, it lets us off the hook. We couldn’t imitate them because we don’t come home to find our kids breathing life into Pikachu or Barbie. If the Holy Family is so different from us, then we’re free of our obligation to imitate them. But if the catechism is right, then we have a duty to make our homes holy as theirs was holy. Catholic tradition suggests a few practical ways for us to start our families’ holy “hidden life” right now. 1. Hang an image of the Holy Family on the wall. The photos we keep in frames are reminders of who we are, where we’ve come from and the standard we have to live up to. In 1890, Pope Leo XIII urged everyone to keep a picture of the Holy Family in the home. At least it can serve as an antidote to the dysfunctional family images we get on TV. 2. Cultivate silence. This is the quality Pope Paul VI found most inspiring in the Holy Family. They lived a hidden life, a quiet life, a life with lots of room for thinking. With TV, radio and the Internet clogging our minds and senses, we leave our families little room for thought or prayer. Our interior dialogue with God gets crowded out by ads and John and Yoko singing “Happy Christmas (War Is Over)” on the oldies channel. Do what it takes to bring silence home. Move your TV so that it’s not the centerpiece of your household. Turn it off when no one’s watching. This is guaranteed to reduce your stress levels. 3. Make your home a haven of charity. One of the most striking descriptions of the church comes from a third-century Christian: “It’s our care of the helpless, our practice of loving kindness that brands us in the eyes of many of our opponents, who say, ‘See those Christians, how they love one another.’” Such charity has to begin at home. The home is the “domestic church.” Yet how many Catholics who decry the lack of reverence in their parish church then go home to desecrate their domestic churches — by harsh words toward their kids or their spouse, or by gossip about the neighbors, co-workers or even priests? Remember: They’ll know we are Christians — not just by the nativity scene in our front yard — but by the love in our hearts, expressed in our homes. 4. Make your home a place of prayer. Your day shouldn’t be dominated by devotions, but you should have some regular, routine family prayers, just as the Holy Family did. They prayed and studied the Scriptures, but still managed to get their work done. There are many ways to pray as a family, and you should seek the ways that work best for your tribe. You can pray together at the beginning of the day, or at the end. You should, at least, be saying grace at every meal. You can pray the Rosary together, begin a weekly family Bible study, go to a weekday Mass. Begin with something small and manageable, and then give yourself time to grow into it.