Today we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Our Gospel reading gives us a glimpse of the Holy Family as a very human family. Anyone who has cared for children can appreciate the fear, the anxiety Mary and Joseph must have felt on discovering that Jesus was not with them. The journey from Jerusalem to Nazareth was a long walk on hilly roads. Historians tell us that the men and women often traveled in separate groups at differing paces. They would meet at an appointed place for the night. Children might travel in either group. So Joseph could have thought that Jesus was with Mary and Mary thought that he was with Joseph. When they discovered otherwise, anxiously they returned in search. Can you imagine the emotions of losing the child Jesus? You parents can. God, of course was using the moment to teach and what he teaches applies to extended families as well.
They finally found him in the Temple. Mary asked in anguish but also with relief,
‘Son, ‘why have you done this to us. Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety. ‘Among the familiar questions parents often ask their children in my case it was by my grandparents who took in we six kids is, ‘where have you been’. That can be translated: ‘why have you done this to me, to us’ Parents ask it of children when they return later than expected after visions of accidents, injuries or trouble.
Sadly spouses may ask it of each other: where have you been, out of fear, suspicion or concern, perhaps meaning, why have you done this to me. Children ask the question when parents neglect them out of lack of responsibility, addiction or other priorities. It is not easy being a parent or assuming a parental role. You may remember the old line attributed to Lord Rochester: ‘before I got married I had six theories about bringing up children, now I have six children and no theories.’
It is not easy being a child either. Some years ago Parade Magazine asked teenagers how parents embarrass you. Among the answers were, making a big scene in front of your school because you won’t them give you a kiss, wearing loud colored clothes, reprimanding kids loudly at the mall. A group of ninth graders was asked what they most want. More sleep was no. 1, followed by wanting to get along better with parents. A goal surely shared by parents.
The Gospel tells us that Jesus went down to Nazareth with Mary and Joseph, was obedient to them and advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God. That is what all parents should want, for their children to grow up wiser and favored by God. Parents have the opportunity to help shape their children while also recognizing the need for freedom to grow and learn for themselves. Parents the Church reminds us are the first teachers of their children in the faith, an important responsibility. Through baptism they have the right to call on the Church for assistance. Parents out of love want to protect, yet children must be able to grow in wisdom and age. Someone said: ‘a child is not a vase to be filled but a fire to be lit.’
A young man came home for Christmas for the first time in many years. The last time home he and his father had a terrible fight after the son dropped out of medical school to see the world and to become a writer he said. With the healing medicine of time, on Christmas Eve the father though still disappointed and still not understanding was able to say, “I wanted you to be like me. Now I know what your mother always knew, you have to be you.” Jesus had to be himself: ‘why were you searching for me? Did you not know I must be in my Father’s house?’ I love you but God the Father must be my priority relationship.
When to hold on, when to let go is a dual mystery. One mother tried for years to get her son to clean up his room. As he was getting ready to leave home for college he decided to surprise her and cleaned up his room. His mother walked in and rather than being pleased, she said wistfully, “already he’s a stranger.” This uncertainty of how, what and when to say or do is true for parents caring for minor children, or parents and adult children relating to one another, and adult children caring for aging parents. There are many theories about family relationships and family living but ultimately each family and each person is unique and therefore deserves loving respect. That means being sensitive to one another, imagining being in the others shoes. The diocese through Catholic Family Services and the Office of Family Life offer support. Yet it is in being grounded in Christ, calling on the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph that shows the way. We must strive to never lose Jesus; but if we do we must never stop searching for him. Only he can relieve our anxiety.
The challenge of balancing the roles in families continues throughout life. One of the most difficult adjustments of my life was discovering that my grandmother who was always so strong had become dependent on me. That happened as well with my mother. Role reversal, those who have loved and cared for us we must now care for often comes at a time when our own aging bones begin to ache or careers or our families need attention. Yet, responding in loving respect is necessary as a disciple of Christ. Jesus provided for his mother from the cross.
There is a story of a grandfather who came to live with his son and daughter-in-law after his wife died. The old man’s hands shook so badly that while eating, food would fall on him and the table. The parents didn’t like their children seeing this, so he ate earlier and alone. In order to avoid breaking dishes, they served his food in wooden bowls. At Christmas one of the young grandchildren gave the parents as a present of wooden bowls. ‘Where did you come up with that idea,’ he was asked. “They’re for you when you get old and come to live with me”, was the response. Kids notice. The grandfather returned to the family meal.
It can be challenging to balance all the competing relationships in families, to be a parent, a child, a spouse, a brother or sister, an in-law or a friend. Yet when grounded in Christian charity as detailed by St. Paul in the 2nd reading and the mutual respect exampled by the Holy Family those challenges can be dealt with. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the Holy Family who forgave, sacrificed and loved, show us the way and are ready to intercede for us along our way. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, pray for us and for all families that we might be worthy members of the family of Christ.