Feast of the Holy Family. Fr Timothy Radcliffe recognises that when we teach our children to walk, we give them the chance to walk away.
At supper with friends, I asked where was their sixteen-year-old daughter. The mother replied, ‘We do not know. She is with her friends, but we do not know what they do. We used to be so close, like sisters. We could say anything to each other. And now she is like a stranger.’
There is much preoccupation for the young. Who are they? What will become of them? But today’s Gospel tells us that we can be confident. God is with them. They are in his hands. Jesus’s mother also endured pain for her son. He disappeared for three days. ‘Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you with great anxiety.’ Jesus replies, but they do not understand.
Jesus was born into a typical modern family. A single child; the man in the household was not his father; tradition says that he lived at home until he was thirty. And then it became worse. He ended up in disgrace and failure on a cross. If God made his home in such a family, then he can be present in ours too and we may trust in God’s providence for our children.
In my room in London I had a picture by Van Gogh of a mother and father teaching their child to walk. The mother is holding up the child, while on the other side of the picture the father has his arms stretched beckoning the child to dare to walk to him. And the child’s face is filled with pleasure, eager for the adventure. One of the first courageous acts we learn is to walk. We will fall flat on our faces, and have to get up and try again. Mary and Joseph also had to teach Jesus the courage to walk. Even though he was God, I am sure that he fell on his face! All moral training is training people to be strong enough to stand on their feet and walk.
But if you teach a child to walk, then one day he or she may walk in a direction that you did not expect or wish. You are giving them the freedom to walk away from you. Deep love does not hold on to us. It lets us go. The beauty and the pain of true love is that it frees another to love someone else even more than us.
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 our Saviour, even though it would turn her life upside down. Joseph had been brave enough to marry Mary, even though she was pregnant from causes he could not understand. So they had raised a child who had the courage to one day do something that they could not then understand.
Billy Elliot is a film about a family from the north of England. They are miners. They live with the threat of unemployment. They are strong, aggressive people. The son of the family is called Billy, and he discovers that he hates boxing, the family sport. He wants to be a ballet dancer. It is a scandal. Real men do not become dancers. Finally the father sees his son dance, and he understands that this is Billy’s life. It is a story about courage. There is the courage of the miners, who fight for their jobs. There is the courage of Billy, who dares to be different. Finally the greatest courage is that of his father, who embraces his son and lets him go and live a life he cannot understand.
Jesus escapes from the little world of his family, and then he comes back offering them the vast home of the Kingdom. May he give us the grace to let go of those whom we love, keeping the door open for their return, trusting that they will come back with gifts we could not have imagined.