On Little Gestures
[2Kgs.4:42-44; Eph.4:1-6; Jn.6:1-15]
It’s amazing what little gestures can do. A gentle touch, a smile, a thank you note can really make a difference.
Today, the fourth Sunday in July, is the First World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly. Pope Francis has instituted this special celebration in this Amoris Laetitia Year of the Family, to highlight the importance of the elderly in our lives. It’s so close to the Feast of Saints Anne and Joachim, Jesus’ grandparents (26 July).
The theme chosen for this celebration, ‘I am with you always’ (Mt.28:20), expresses just how close Jesus is to all older people, and how important it is for families to stay connected to their elders.
Many families today have several generations and other close relationships living under the same roof. This is a social reality that’s nicely reflected in John Everett Millais’ painting Christ in the House of His Parents (1849-50). [i]
This masterpiece portrays an extended Holy Family working together in Joseph’s workshop, where he’s making a door. Young Jesus has hurt his hand, and Joseph and Mary are gently comforting him while his grandmother Anne is trying to remove the offending nail.
On the right, Jesus’ cousin John (in camel-hair shorts) is kindly carrying a bowl of water to bathe Jesus’ wound. And on the left, a helpful but unnamed young man is assisting Joseph. Is he a future disciple?
This painting is full of gestures of love. It’s also replete with Christian symbols. The wound on Jesus’ hand and the drop of blood on his foot prefigure his crucifixion, as does the wood stacked up against the walls. The tools represent the instruments of Jesus’ passion. [ii] John’s bowl of water points to his future as the Baptist, while the carpenter’s triangle at the rear represents the Holy Trinity. The dove perched on Jacob’s Ladder symbolises peace and love, and the Holy Spirit that fills their home.
The workbench represents an altar, and the door symbolises Jesus’ emerging role as our doorway to heaven (Jn.10:9). The blood stain on the door recalls the ancient Israelites in Egypt who smeared lamb’s blood on their doorposts (Ex.12:24). And the sheep gathered outside are the flock awaiting the Good Shepherd. [iii] [iv]
There was an uproar when this painting was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1850. The reviews were scathing and Charles Dickens was particularly outraged. Never before had the Holy Family been portrayed as poor, hardworking souls in such gritty surrounds. And it was unusual for Jesus’ grandmother and others to be presented as so integral to their family.
Today, however, we can relate to the earnest simplicity of Jesus, Mary and Joseph working at home with their extended family. Each person clearly is highly valued and has something important to do, and central to it all is Jesus himself.
For indeed, in a happy and holy family everything centres on Jesus.
At the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia in 2015, Pope Francis said: ‘Like happiness, holiness is always tied to little gestures. “Whoever gives you a cup of water in my name will not go unrewarded,” says Jesus (Mk.9:41).
‘These little gestures are those we learn at home, in the family; they get lost amid all the other things we do, yet they do make each day different. They are the quiet things done by mothers and grandmothers, by fathers and grandfathers, by children, by brothers and sisters. They are little signs of tenderness, affection and compassion. Like the warm supper we look forward to at night, the early lunch awaiting someone who gets up early to go to work.
‘Homely gestures. Like a blessing before we go to bed, or a hug after we return from a hard day’s work. Love is shown by little things, by attention to small daily signs which make us feel at home. Faith grows when it is lived and shaped by love. That’s why our families, our homes, are true domestic churches. They are the right place for faith to become life, and for life to grow into faith.’ [v]
The American writer Louisa May Alcott once wrote, ‘A house needs a grandma in it’. And someone else said, ‘A grandpa has silver in his hair and gold in his heart’. But we’re not always good at showing our appreciation.
The little, loving gestures that Pope Francis refers to come from Gentleness, which is one of the fruits of the Spirit that Paul writes about in Galatians 5:22. Gentleness is a mark of strength, and a quality that God would like to cultivate in our lives.
It’s also a quality that can make a real difference to those who feel overlooked and unloved in our busy world.
Today, let’s do something gentle – perhaps a small but kind gesture – to honour our elders and make them feel special.
Let’s make sure they feel loved and appreciated.
[i] Sir John Everett Millais, Christ in the House of His Parents, 1849-50: Oil on Canvas, 86.4 x 139.7 cm. Tate Collection, London. (Public Domain, Wikipedia).