Studies have shown the heightened anxiety of losing physical contact with one’s spouse in a busy airport. Can you imagine the intense anxiety of losing a young child at a crowded airport? I believe some of you have had the experience of this anxiety and the frightening thoughts of losing someone close to you.
Picture Mary and Joseph when they realised that their 12-year-old son, Jesus was not in their travelling caravan on their way back to Nazareth. After not being able to find him for three days, how much anxiety and fear would have built up within Mary and Joseph? They must have searched feverishly in that busy city of Jerusalem after the Passover festival. Thoughts of whether Jesus had eaten, where he had slept, who was there to take care of him during those three days, all these must have crossed the minds of Jesus’ parents.
Very little is known about the early life of Jesus of Nazareth. What I am able to interpret from a psychological perspective is that Jesus, like any “typical teenager”, was testing his limits on personal freedom. According to renowned developmental psychologist, Erik Erikson, the ages between 12 and 18 years is known as the “Adolescence Stage” or Stage 5 of the “Psychosocial Developmental Stage”. Here the adolescent has to work through the crisis of “ego-identity” versus “role-confusion”. Ego identity means knowing who you are and how you fit in with the rest of society. It requires that you take all you have learned about life and yourself, and mould it into a unified self-image, one that your community finds meaningful. Role confusion happens when there is uncertainty about one's place in society and in the world. A common question adolescents ask at this stage is ‘Who am I?’ which is essentially a question of identity. If successfully negotiated, the virtue which Erikson calls fidelity will be achieved.
Based on Erikson’s theory, Jesus had successfully negotiated his Stage 5 crisis, in developing his “ego identity” of knowing his rightful place within the Jewish community, his family, as well as his realisation of being the Son of God. This growing awareness of his life and mission on earth might not be fully understood then by his loving parents. According to St Luke, Mary“stored up all these things in her heart”, to ponder or reflect on. this unique experience of finding Jesus in the temple. The metaphorical use of “three days” by St Luke echoes that of the resurrection of Jesus, three days after his death.
In the Lukan narrative, Joseph was not given a voice when they found Jesus in the temple. What would you, as a father, have done or said? But, let’s first focus on the family dynamics among Mary, Joseph and the adolescent Jesus. A dynamic that is often played out in our own family, when we encounter a challenging situation. Frustrations and anxieties have to be carefully addressed by the family members, and perhaps, new family rules have to be drawn or renegotiated, as in the case of the Holy Family. After perhaps a strong reprimand by the parents, Jesus “went down with them and came to Nazareth and lived under their authority” and in the process, “Jesus increased in wisdom, in stature, and in favour with God and men”.
What can we learn from this experience of the Holy Family? Perhaps, the importance of renegotiation of family regulations as the child grows older, and a better understanding of the psychosocial developmental stages of our children. Patience and prudence are needed in parenting since each child is unique and has different developmental needs. Parents have to “reflect or ponder”, and not act on one’s impulse or emotion at a given situation, including the importance of emotional support given by one parent to the other in times of crisis. Allowing one parent to talk to the child while the other listens is good and helpful family communication. Also, not having both parents demand an explanation at the same time, which can be overwhelming for the child, resulting in her/ him “shutting-down” emotionally.
Thus, the safe premise to work from is to listen first before reacting, since like Jesus, the child may have a reasonable explanation for his action, based on his personal perspective and level of developmental growth, including intellectual or emotional maturity. Mindful that the need for good parenting and communication skills are often not a given, parents have to learn and acquire these skills, at parenting training courses or the “school of love” for parents!
You may have heard of these words, “see, judge, act”. It is important to see not only with one’s eyes, but with one’s intellect, and to take note of one’s emotion, which can teach us something about ourselves and our relationship with others. Seeing also entails drawing from one’s religious faith to guide one’s decision. Here, our judgement should be slow, and to give the benefit of doubt to the other, since we often make mistakes if we judge the situation or person too hastily. Remember this wise adage, “be slow to judge and quick to forgive”. Judging should also be made through eyes of love, since at the end of the day, we too want God to judge us with love.
What then is “act”? Our actions will determine a certain outcome in our relationship with that significant person. In the words of St Ignatius of Loyola, “love ought to manifest in deeds (or actions) rather than in words”. So, let your actions flow from love, and when needed, from “tough love” as parents, and not from mere reaction to the situation. An act of love for parents is to have a conversation first between themselves before addressing the child’s situation. I believe Mary and Joseph had many conversations over the three days, about what to do or say when they find Jesus, and thereafter on their way back together as a family to Nazareth.
As we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family, let us remind each other that children are gifts from God, to care, love and to provide with loving and spiritual guidance for life, since parents are also their first catechists of the Catholic faith. Children have the responsibility to listen, obey and respect their parents because of the love they have for them. A love that was first received and experienced in your own family-of-origin, since “you cannot give what you do not have” to your children.
I would like to leave you with a short reflection by writer CS Lewis, called “The Road”.
“When we are lost in the woods the sight of a signpost is a great matter. He who first sees it cries, ‘Look!’ The whole party gathers round and stares. But when we have found the road and are passing signposts every few miles, we shall not stop and stare. They will encourage us and we shall be grateful to the authority that set them up. But we shall not stop and stare, or not much, not on this road though their pillars are of silver and their lettering of gold. ‘We would be at Jerusalem.’ ”
Wishing you and your family a Holy Christmas Season and Grace-filled New Year, 2022!
FR CHARLES SIM, SJ