For those who do not golf, there is a fine line in one of the basic mechanics of the golf swing (and probably the baseball swing as well, but I don’t play baseball) that will effect everything. It has to do with how tightly or loosely you grip the club. Too loose, and the club flies out of your hand. Too tight, and you lose both distance and accuracy as the plane of the swing is now controlled by the small muscles in your hands and not the big muscles of your hips and legs and back. Somewhere in between too tight and too loose is the ‘just right’ zone where you maximize club head speed and ball striking accuracy.
I suspect each parent with now grown children recognizes that same fine line they tried to walk in the rearing of their children. Hold on to them too loosely and they spin out of control – without boundaries or guidelines to tether them to both responsibility and possibility. Hold them too tightly, and they never learn the freedom to make mistakes and fail and fall and be hurt, and yet know it is within their power to pick themselves up and start anew.
The little we know of Jesus’ childhood come to us from Luke’s gospel – and even then, we only see two snapshots – today’s gospel and the gospel of the presentation in the temple when he was 12. What do they teach us about how the Holy Family navigated those waters?
From the first of these two stories we learn that the Holy Family did not hold Jesus too loosely. Thoughtful parents also tend to the spiritual and emotional needs of their children, with equal discipline and commitment as they care for the physical needs. We see Mary and Joseph named Jesus in accordance to the message of the angel. Before he could talk or walk, they brought him to the Temple. They brought him there because they knew to thank God for him, and to ask God for help raising him to adulthood. They knew one of their responsibilities and great joys was to raise children in the faith.
I had a conversation at a wedding reception last night with a couple who are realizing that it is time for them to come to a decision about church attendance, precisely because of their children. Unlike some parents who leave that decision to their kids, under the guise of ‘allowing them to make up their own mind”, they recognize it is part of the ‘not too loose’ grasp they need to have for their children. Just as they don’t leave choices on nutrition and bed times and playing in the middle of the street to the kids, they know that a solid witness in their own lives to matters of faith is crucial.
From the story of Jesus being left behind at the Temple at age 12, we learn that the Holy Family also did not hold him too tightly. We know the story. In their customary yearly pilgrimage to Jerusalem, (again, witness to not holding too loosely) Jesus is inadvertently left behind, because they trust him to be among the relatives and friends who were with them on the journey. Frantic hours are spent trying to find him. And, suddenly, like the mother of Kevin McCallister in the second Home Alone movie, they realize exactly where to look for him – in the temple. There they found him, confounding the religious teachers with his uncanny grasp of mature and complex religious matters. What a testament he was to the spiritual foundation that Mary and Joseph laid for him, but also what a testament to the unique relationship he had with his Heavenly Father.
Mary and Joseph did not hover over his every moment. They did not keep Jesus tied to their hip, always in their sight. They gradually gave him space to grow up, to mature, to ask questions, to spread his wings. This is not an easy gift for parents to give their children. We are frightened by the violence and suffering in the world, from which we rightly want to protect our children. But we harm them also when we try to bulldoze down every challenge in their path, and hover over them so closely that they fail to learn to stand and fall and get back up again.
I realize that many here are past the ‘active child rearing years’, at least as parents, and perhaps even as grandparents. Yet these two rules – not too tightly – not too loosely – also apply to all the relationships of we are a part. Do I give my spouse, my friend, my fiancé, my grown son, my aging parent that same set of both roots and wings critical to their growth even now? Take a lesson from the Holy Family these days or from the golf course. Either way, the message is the same – not too loose, not too tight… (take an imaginary golf swing…)