When I have the opportunity to be at home with my family during the holiday season, I often find myself sitting at the dining room table with my mother, sisters, brothers and a few nieces and nephews sharing information and stories about other family members. More often than not, my mother will ask the whereabouts of one of her twenty-seven grandchildren or eight great grandchildren. Sometimes, a voice is heard, “She or he is with friends and is becoming more and more like a stranger to us every day!” As parents, as grandparents, as aunts and as uncles, we are concerned for our young family members, “Who are they?” “Where are they?” “What will become of them?”
Jesus was born into a typical Jewish family not a perfect family. We know very little about Jesus’ domestic life but there are events in all the gospels about its reality and drama. Some of the family crises are pregnancy before marriage, an uncertain engagement, disturbing dreams, role confusion, early physical hardships, primitive housing conditions, untimely geographical moves, a lost child, the untimely death of a husband and father, the confusing behavior of a child, the disturbed reaction of relatives, the premature death of a child, and a mother’s heartaches. While this list may not be complete, I think it creates a basis for a Christian family to look to the gospels for a common source of realism to handle the experiences of family life today.
For example, when I was growing up I remember my mother and father teaching my younger siblings how to walk. My father would hold a sister or brother up while on the other side of the room my mother would stretch out her arms encouraging their child to dare to walk to her. At first, there were tears with falling and trying to get up again. But after sometime, tears became giggles and laughter as walking became more natural.
Like my parents, like my sisters and brothers who are parents, Mary and Joseph had to give Jesus the courage to walk. When you teach a child to walk, then one day he or she may walk in a direction that you least expect or wish. You are giving them the freedom to walk away from you. Deep love does not hold on to them. It lets them go. The beauty and the pain of true love is that it frees another to love someone or something else.
When the child Jesus leaves his family circle and stays behind in the temple, he is being courageous. ‘How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my father’s house?’ He had been formed by two brave people who prepared him for this. Mary had dared to say ‘Yes’ to the angel’s invitation to be mother of Jesus, even though it would turn her life upside down. Joseph had been courageous enough to marry Mary even though she was pregnant from causes he could not understand. Consequently, they had raised a child who had the courage to one day do something that they could not then understand.
This training in courage did not take place from the inside to the outside. It began from the outside to the inside. Jesus first saw his parents living out their bravery. Then Mary and Joseph explained their bravery to their son who undoubtedly asked them questions. Then Jesus integrated what he saw and what he learned and put it into practice in his own life. Finally, what Jesus sees, what he learns, what he puts into practice becomes who he is.
I think it is interesting that I have nieces and nephews who have decided to let their children decide for themselves what religion they will practice. “It should be their choice!” are the words I sometimes hear. And yet I have to wonder how a child can make a choice if they are not given the experience, the information, and the example from which they can make a choice.
We know that Jesus escapes from the little world of his family, and then he comes back offering them the Kingdom. Jesus understanding of the Kingdom came from the family traditions Mary and Joseph gave him, the religion they taught him, the life he lived with them, and the freedom they gave him.
On this Feast of the Holy Family, at the beginning of a new year, we adults are encouraged to give all children deep, strong, roots and then to let them go with the confidence that God is with them as God is with us.
Fr. Bob Kelly