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  • Writer's pictureArthur Bruso

A Flawed Trinity

The 2019-20 Curious Matter Holiday Installation DECEMBER 22, 2019 — JANUARY 19, 2020 SPECIAL EVENT: SUNDAY, JANUARY 5, 2020 NOON TO 4PM

Installation view of prayerbooks, missals, and prayer cards.
Installation view of prayerbooks, missals, and prayer cards.

FAMILIES MAY BE BROKEN, blended, chosen; nuclear, extended and dysfunctional; happy, unhappy. There are infinite dynamics and configurations of families. By turns we celebrate them, mourn them, regret, forgive, flee from, discover and create them. This year, the Curious Matter holiday installation considers the theme of family with the Terrestrial Trinity as our departure point. The Terrestrial Trinity of Joseph, Mary and Jesus, is also known as the Holy Family.

The Curious Matter holiday installation, as is our tradition, regards some aspect of our Roman Catholic upbringing and attempts to identify a universal truth or quality that speaks to the holiday season — something that transcends doctrine and serves as a means to find greater connection with our friends, neighbors and family. While our relationship with the church has evolved and changed through the years, along with our personal notions of faith and religion, we continue to be informed by the iconography and stories of the church and the bible we learned as children. We take this time of year to reflect on the most noble and generous lessons we learned and look past any failures which may divide us. We endeavor to discover and recover the finest aspects of our religious heritage and celebrate that which unites all of us as humans.

We have brought into the gallery, from our collection of household devotions, images of the Holy Family. We’ve focused primarily on those family scenes of Jesus, Mary and Joseph post-nativity. The Terrestrial Trinity proclaimed the father as protector, the mother as nurturer and the child as the spiritual future. With this concept, the family is a complete, self-supporting unit that provides all of the needs of the individual. They represent the ideal to which the faithful may strive to emulate; the obedience of Joseph and Mary in accepting God’s Will, and Jesus as the Son giving his obedience to both his spiritual Father as well as his terrestrial parents. The Catholic Church celebrates the feast of the Holy Family on the second Sunday after the Nativity during the Christmas season which makes it an ideal time to ponder this dynamic.

The parent child triad is the basic unit of procreation and has been propagated as the most important to our Western society. Not only does it bring forth children to increase the population and assure the future and vitality of the community, but it is also the enculturating force that passes down traditions and social obligations to the young. Since the 4th century, the Christian Church has venerated the Holy Family through images of the Nativity to emphasize and celebrate the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. Later, in the 16th century, the notion of the terrestrial family as an earthly reflection of the spiritual trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit became an increasingly popular motif in order to illustrate the more mundane, earthly bond of familial love and venerate the spark of the divine in each of our own families. The Terrestrial Trinity portrays young Jesus as the future spiritual leader, along with Mary as devoted mother whose unconditional love becomes the example for all mothers, and Joseph with the tools of his trade as carpenter, depicts his work as provider, his humbleness, and patience.

Home Altar of the Holy Family
Home Altar of the Holy Family Confraternity established by apostolic letters of Pope Leo XIII dated June 14th 1892, c. 1900s, plaster, tempera paint, silk, paper, carved and gilded oak, 21.5 X 17.5 x 4 inches.

What do we do with this ideal of family? From a secular viewpoint, the Terrestrial Trinity is a curious group. Mary the perpetual Virgin was chosen by Heaven to conceive without sin and become the mother of God on earth. With only the slight question of how this would be possible, she accepts this remarkable duty in obedience to God’s Will in defiance of the social difficulties an unmarried woman with a child might encounter. Joseph having accepted Mary to be his wife was inclined to disown her upon discovering she was with child before the consummation of their marriage. However, through the intercession of God he was requested to remain and be the father on earth to the Son of God and husband to Mary. With the roles of husband, wife and child secured, they became acceptable to their society, and safe of the judgements and scorn of others.

Historically, the family unit has most commonly been defined and maintained to be a man, woman and their children. Marriage sanctioned and supported the family ideal. To deviate from the traditional roles demanded by both church doctrine and societal expectation could cause severe personal difficulties. The outlier might be mocked, ostracized or worse. There have been derivations on roles and functions between family members, and there have been exceptions and social accommodations when the traditional roles fail. The loss of a parent, or a child born outside of marriage bonds, would test the shape of the family unit. Children without parents, if not taken in by a blood relative, were often left in destitution. Even if taken in by relative they might hold only second-class status. Deviations were often seen as a challenge to the health of families and by extension communities.

However the societal rules were shaped by religion or tradition, the teachings of Christ were always to accept and forgive. The Christian ethic always was aware that perfection was to be striven for, but rarely achieved. This basic understanding has been rewritten and modified into sometimes unrecognizable expectations, but it remains at the core of the Gospels and at the center of the meaning of the Holy Family and its terrestrial counterpart.

As we meditate on the Terrestrial Family we recognize that there are many ways to build family units that are vital and nurturing and transcend specific constellations of traditional gendered roles. This holiday we look at the Terrestrial Trinity for what the members symbolize. What we recognize and celebrate in the creation of family are the ideals of protection, nurturing, respect, patience and a vision for the future. These are the qualities they are supposed to inspire in all of us. We know with certainty that feeling safe, appreciated and supported are the traits of family we value most. As the Holy Family however abstrusely reminds us, family doesn’t rely solely on blood connections. Family can also encompass individuals of our own choosing or those who fate has chosen for us. It can be a single parent or a group of individuals who parent. The fundamental message of the Holy Family and of Christmas is of love. Love is the bond that keeps us together. This season is a time when families gather from their far-flung homes to celebrate the light of their connections during this time of darkness. Regardless of whether those family ties were created through blood or choice, Curious Matter would like to extend our deepest wishes for joy and love toward your deepest bonds.


© 2019 Curious Matter used with permission

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