Parents, the First Evangelists

Pope Francis has an evangelization prayer close to his heart this month: he is praying for parents. As the Pope puts it, "Pray that parents may be true evangelizers, passing on to their children the precious gift of faith."

Mary and Joseph were the first evangelizers of Jesus. If evangelizing means to bring the good news of salvation to the world, then Mary was a literalist: she physically brought Jesus, the saving Word of God, to the world. Joseph and Mary cared for the Word, loved the Word, and shared the Word with others in their daily lives.

It almost seems unfair, in a way, doesn't it? Baptism and Confirmation commissions Christians to make disciples of the whole world, to bring the light of Christ into dark places. And parents have a sacred duty to pass on the gift of faith to their children. But sometimes we forget. We forget to center our lives around Jesus, because there are things to buy, people to impress, desires to gratify, Sunday basketball tournaments to play, and delicious gossip to discuss. . . . Yes, we forget. But Mary and Joseph? Mary and Joseph really never could forget about Jesus, could they? I mean, he was right there.

It's tempting to think I would be a better evangelizer if I had the same full-access pass to the person of Jesus, the same "unfair advantage" as Mary and Joseph. And then, just before the lightning strikes my blasphemous behind, I remember what the Holy Family endured. I think of the deep, dreamy prayer Joseph habitually fell into that guided him to make impossible decisions for his family: Marry the pregnant woman. It'll be OK (see Matthew 1:20-21)And then, Emigrate to Egypt, the land where your ancestors were slaves, because the king wants to kill your newborn (see Matthew 2:13-14)How many men would trust prayer as radically as Joseph? Joseph--who utters not a single word in the Gospels--shows by his actions how to trust God, how to lead a family, how to care for the Word.

I think of the agony Mary suffered, piercing her heart like a sword (Luke 2:35). I recall the moment the angel Gabriel visited Mary, when God asked her to follow him in an unprecedented, supernatural, even outrageous way; she said yes (Luke 2:26-38). Mary, full of grace, shows us how to "love the LORD, your God, with your whole heart, and with your whole being, and with your whole strength" (Deuteronomy 6:5). In John 19:25-27, we see Mary at the foot of the cross, and we behold a woman who treasured the Word even to the point of public disgrace. Mary 's steadfastness makes me wonder if I would continue to encourage my children to live the faith even when that faith leads to (apparent) disaster. Would I, like Mary, trust that God always, always, brings light into darkness? Do I pass on to my children the kind of faith that knows not even death separates us from the love of God? (Romans 8:38)

Parenting--fathering and mothering--is not easy, surely not even for Joseph and Mary. And we're more like Jesus' parents than we think; we do have full access to the person of Jesus--in prayer. Prayer is paying attention to our relationship with God. We pray with the Bible, we pray in the Sacraments, we pray as we relate to and serve others. An instinct to pray--to pay attention to God--is really what we're passing on to our children when we bring them up in faith.

Perhaps our own prayer lives could use a boost, as we consider the Pope's intention this month. The video embedded below suggests we use our imagination to pray with Jesus as a boy, at his home in Nazareth with his mother and foster-father. St. Ignatius of Loyola knew the power of imaginative prayer, making it the bedrock of his classic Spiritual Exercises. Asking simple questions often unlocks the imagination; asking those questions in the context of prayer provides a personal encounter with Jesus Christ.

What was Jesus like as a boy? We know he grew up in Nazareth with Mary and Joseph. But the Gospels tell us almost nothing specific about Jesus from the time he was a baby until he was twelve years old.

The Gospel of Luke says only one thing about Jesus as he grew up in Nazareth:
The child grew and became strong,
filled with wisdom;
and the favor of God was upon him.
With this scripture in mind, let your imagination take over:
What did Jesus look like as a baby? As a child? As a teenager?
What did he wear?
Where did he play? What music did he enjoy?
Who were his close friends?
What did Jesus see when he woke up in the morning? What could he smell?
What was the floor like in their house?
What was Jesus' favorite dinner? 
How did Jesus show love to his parents?

Spend a little time (five minutes, ten, twenty?) imagining the Holy Family at home in Nazareth this month. Or read a Gospel account of the birth of Jesus, and imagine yourself in that scene. If this kind of imaginative prayer seems fruitful for you, involve the whole family in the activity below.

The children and youth I visit all around the country are naturally receptive to imaginative prayer. They honestly enjoy imagining themselves with Jesus in the context of the Gospels, using their senses and imaginations as I lead them through questions like the ones above. Actually, after we're done with our five or ten-minute imaginative journey with Jesus, they're usually shocked when I suggest what we were doing was praying. They thought prayer had to feel dry and use only approved wording. Just spending time with Jesus? Just praying from the heart? It's a refreshing way to treasure the Word ourselves, and to pass on the gift of faith to our children.

As we join Pope Francis in prayer this month, we can try setting aside a few minutes to imagine ourselves at home in Nazareth with Jesus. Perhaps in that prayer time we will discover we are children once again, of an age with Jesus. Maybe we will remain our current age, spending our prayer time caring for or playing with the Christ child. Or if we spend time imagining ouselves in Bethlehem, we may encounter the baby Jesus in a new way this Christmas. After all, Christmas proves that God wants to be with us. Forever.