A sermon of St. Jean-Marie Vianney for the Feast of the Holy Family.
“Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?” – Luke ii. 49
“Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?” With these words Jesus wished to make Mary, His Mother, who had sought Him sorrowfully, understand that the place where He preferred to be was the house of God, the Temple. The heart of the Divine Saviour was full of tenderest love for the Temple of Jerusalem; with holy anger He was zealous for its dignity and sacredness, for one day He drove out of it those who bought and sold therein, and how He wept over the sad destiny which was to fall even upon the Temple by the descent of the Divine punishment over that stubborn and blinded Jerusalem at the lamentable destruction of the city of David! We, also, beloved, must, after the example of our Saviour, be occupied with the things that are our Father’s, and we must be filled with love for the house of God, which is the Church; it should be for us the place where we like best to pass our time; but as during the week the duties of our state and calling will hardly allow us time to spend an hour or two in Church, to pray there, and to seek for advice, consolation and strength, it ought to be the endeavour of every zealous Christian to make his home like a church, a temple of God, so that he may there be able to occupy himself with the things of his Father’s. But how can we possibly make our home a Temple of God? I reply: The great means towards this end are religious pictures. The sermon of today will prove this to us.
Man, who is a creature composed of a body and a soul, requires perceptible objects to represent to him the unseen, or, in others words, he needs sacred pictures. From the visible our human thoughts rise up to the invisible; by that which is visible we are reminded of that which is invisible; by the natural of the supernatural. That is why, from the very earliest ages, Christians made pictures of the Divine Saviour, of the Mother of God, and of the angels; in some instances they even made pictures of the doctrines of faiths, such as the doctrine of the Blessed Sacrament. These visible pictures were the ladder on which their mind and heart ascended to the invisible God, and to the truths which He had revealed to them. After they had adorned their places of Divine worship with religious pictures of this kind, they did the same in their dwellings. To decorate the houses with religious pictures is a custom as old as Christianity itself, for the true Christian has always considered his home as nothing less than a Temple of God, and the religious pictures as means to extend and preserve the spirit of Christianity in the home.
In the sitting room, my dear Christians, the place of honour should be given to the crucifix. The cross is the sign through which the Catholic Christian, in an especial manner, professes his belief, and the crucifix in the parlour is a public profession of faith that those dwelling there are Catholics. For it is not enough that we believe in our innermost hearts; no, we must still more show our faith publicly, and we must never be ashamed of it before anyone. Our Divine Saviour says: “He who confesses Me before men, I will acknowledge him before My Father in Heaven, but he who denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father in Heaven.” Let us then, make a place of honour for the crucifix in our home, and confess freely and frankly before all the world our Catholic belief! Or ought we to be ashamed to hang the crucifix in our rooms, and instead hide it away in some out-of-the-way corner? We decorate the walls with the pictures of celebrated persons, with the pictures of parents, children and relatives; indeed, in some places, there are even to be found pictures which are repulsive and altogether improper. But the picture of our God, of our Redeemer and Saviour, the sign of the Cross, to which we owe our salvation—ought a Christian to be ashamed to have these pictures in his rooms? No, anyone who would be afraid to publicly profess his faith in the Crucified One is not worthy of the name of Christian; such a family does not deserve the name of Catholic. I know of a certain place, dear Christians, where in the midst of fields and meadows, there stands on an eminence a newly built dwelling-house, which almost resembles a lordly manor. On this spot there stood formerly an old house, over the threshold of which was fastened a large crucifix. When the parents of the present owner died, and he got married, he had the old building torn down, and built a new one. There were people who said to him: “You are surely not going to take that crucifix from the old house, and put it up over the door of the new house—it wouldn’t look well at all.” What answer did the man make? “Under the sign of this crucifix my parents lived and worked, and God blessed them, for they became well-to-do, and I shall do just the same with my family. We shall live and work under the sign of the Cross, so that the blessing of God, which we enjoyed in the old house, may also fall upon the new one.” And as a matter of fact the blessing of God has descended upon that house, in the most visible way, and remains with that family to this hour. And the blessing of God will flow down over every house where people live and work under the sign of the Cross. For all the members of the family know that when they look upon the crucifix in the right way it teaches them to pray to God, to have confidence in God in times of trouble; preserves them from haughtiness in times of good fortune; teaches them, not only to care for temporal things, but also for those which are eternal; and the family which understands this language of the Cross and which orders its life according to the language of the Cross, such a family converts its house into a church and is blessed by God. As the crucifix in the parlour and the bedrooms leads the dwellers of the house to God, so in like manner do the pictures of the Saints teach them, in mute and yet eloquent language, encourage them, to do good and to avoid evil. Let us take, for instance, dear Christians, the picture of St. Joseph. Is it not an ever-present example and a constant motive for the father of the house, to be a father to his family, as St. Joseph was to his? Does it not recall to the father’s mind his exalted dignity? Does it not admonish him of his responsibility for every member of the family confided to his care? Does it not make him zealous, like St. Joseph, to conscientiously care for the souls and bodies of those subject to him? And Mary’s picture? What can the mother not learn from it? Was not Mary the best of all mothers who ever lived on earth, and should not every mother endeavour to imitate her? Does not Mary’s picture tell the mother that her greatest blessings, her children, are a gift from God which she must therefore bring up for God and with Him? And in her many motherly sufferings, does not Mary’s picture on the wall strengthen the mother’s heart to bear her sufferings courageously, as a true Christian woman should? And the children, do they not find the most instructive models in the practice of virtuous life, of obedience, innocence, piety, and the fear of God, and industry, in the pictures of Christ, of His Saints, which adorn the sitting and bedrooms? Cannot the mother give her children the best religious instruction, and the most practical education, by often telling them about the lives of those Saints, whose pictures hang around the rooms, and so lead them on to follow their example? Yes, truly, the pictures of Christ and His Saints, utilized in this way, convert the house into a Temple, into a Church, and God’s blessing will rest on that house and on all those living in it.
Of course, religious pictures of themselves will not make a family good; only when they are contemplated and used in the manner which I have just described—then they are a practical help to true Christian sentiment, and to a true Christian way of living in the family. But if it should so happen that in the sitting and bedrooms, the pictures of Christ and His saints on the walls are put to shame, and have to shut their eyes and ears, then certainly it would be far better to remove these pictures. We should then do as a certain landlord of an inn did once. One day several men were sitting in an inn, and they as unfortunately is too often the case, used very doubtful and improper language. When the landlord of the inn heard their conversation, he went up to the wall and removed a crucifix which was hanging there, with these words: “Come away out of this, O Lord, for you cannot remain in such company!” And he carried the crucifix into another room. The men immediately stopped their improper conversation, and they knew that, for the future, if they wanted to use such language, they would have to patronize another inn. How often, dear Christians, we ought to remove the crucifix from our rooms, and say also: “Come away out of this, O Lord, for you cannot remain in such company!” But when the members of a household realize that they are living under the shadow of a crucifix, they will not offend against this sacred token by committing sin; then the crucifix will be a means to help them withstand sin and temptation, and their house will be a house of virtue, a house like a Temple of God.
Dearly beloved, in some parts of Europe the corner-shaft of a farm house is called “God’s pillar.” This is made out of the largest oak tree which the farmer can procure. Before this pillar is put in position, the master carpenter gives the command: “Hats off, and say three ‘Our Fathers!’”
When the building is completed and the household things are arranged, they bring into the room where the chief pillar stands, the crucifix and a small altar, with pictures of the Saints. That is why it is called “God’s pillar.” Here the members of the household, surrounded by pictures of a better world, are reminded that they are not only upon earth to work in the sweat of their brow, and then to die, but that they have an exalted destiny.
Dear Christians, let our house rest upon the pillar of God; let the mightiest and most powerful support of our house be the crucifix; let us give it the place of honour in our home! If the Cross is the profession of faith of the family, if the family are induced by it and the other religious pictures to prayer, to the conscientious fulfillment of their religious duties, to bring up their children in the right way and to be industrious; if, indeed, the family hang these religious pictures on the walls, not only as a decoration, but let these pictures appeal to their hearts, and follow their advice, then the house is really firmly built on God’s pillar, it is God’s Temple; then you can say of this family, in the words of our Saviour: “Where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them!”