Nowhere in the realm of human experience is the swift passage of time more startlingly evident than in the raising of our children, a blink of befuddled parental eyes whisking us from nursery to college dorm and then commencement, leaving us to ask in wonder – where did all those years go?
The requisite job search process for new graduates very often results in career opportunities that take our young people far from the nest to strike out on their own, especially in these days of increased mobility. There is no doubt about it – this can be a bittersweet time, for parents and children alike.
So it must have seemed for Our Lady when the time came for Jesus to set out on His public ministry, ending the peaceful family period we refer to as His “hidden life.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church, quoting Pope Paul VI, describes the hidden life at Nazareth as characterized by silence, family, and work (533). It is easy to envision the caring atmosphere which Our Lady labored to maintain for Jesus and Joseph during the family years at Nazareth. Even though there was certainly no extravagance in a material sense, Mary would have made good use of the little they had to ensure their comfort and well-being. For thirty years, she provided her Son with the best possible foundation in human love and maternal devotion.
As with all things, however, the time came for this blessed period in the lives of Jesus and Mary to end. How did Mary feel at their inevitable parting? For that matter, how did Jesus Himself feel? The only Son of His heavenly Father had no recourse but to obey and begin His mission, yet the only son of an earthly mother must have felt the painful wrenching brought on by their separation. Tradition tells us that Our Lady already was widowed when Jesus set out, rendering the leaving even more emotional on both sides.
How did it go for each of them, then, in the days following Jesus’ departure?
In the characteristic way of mothers, Our Lady may have spent quiet hours reminiscing, retracing His fleeting growing-up years in her mind. Perhaps this process was aided by a few small mementos – a tiny garment worn long ago, a simple toy or two fashioned by Joseph in bygone days. In the early days, at least, Mary would spend time in Jesus’ company, at the wedding at Cana, for example (Jn 2:1-13), but things would never be quite the same as when they shared the same roof. We can imagine Our Lady leaning heavily for support on the God whom she trusted implicitly during this time of letting go.
For Jesus’ part, leaving Nazareth must have brought on a rude awakening in many ways. Mary’s gentle companionship and familiar household quickly gave way to fasting, trial, and temptation in the harshest desert surroundings (Mt 4:1-11) and, as He Himself put it, to having no place to lie His head (Lk 9:58).
Thus, Jesus was thrust from a serene, loving environment into some of the most difficult circumstances the world of His earthly time represented. We are left to wonder – during those early days after Nazareth, did Jesus think fondly and longingly of the home He had shared with His mother? Did He, too, marvel at the speed of His passage from His earliest days to full maturity? Like Mary, did He turn to His heavenly Father for comfort and support during this time of transition?
Jesus’ return to the synagogue at Nazareth is described in the Gospel of Luke (4:16-29). On that occasion, Jesus was invited to read from the writings of Isaiah in the Hebrew Scriptures. People who had watched Him pass from childhood to manhood were astounded at His declaration that He Himself embodied the fulfillment of that passage which prophesied the coming of the Savior. While it began on a positive note, this incident did not have a happy ending, as Jesus was rejected angrily by His own townspeople.
We are left to wonder at the psychological effect of His neighbors’ harsh reaction on both Jesus and His mother, whom we can assume was present in the local synagogue that day. Did it bring them to the startling realization that even in His hometown, Jesus’ past was just that – a part of His life that was gone forever? The knowledge that one really cannot go home again may have seemed harsh at first, but isn’t it possible that it helped to ease the necessary process of detachment for them both? The same can apply to modern-day families facing the reality of a new graduate launching a career far from home.
In the weeks and months following her Son’s departure, it may be that Our Lady pondered time’s fleeting nature in her heart while praying for strength to face the new reality of daily life without Jesus’ physical presence. Parents of children approaching the inevitable time of going off on their own can look to Jesus and Mary and consider how they coped with that very human time in their lives – the time of leaving Nazareth.
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