The children of Israel said to them, "Would that we had died at the LORD's hand in the land of Egypt, as we sat by our fleshpots and ate our fill of bread! But you had to lead us into this desert to make the whole community die of famine!"
Someone asked the question, "Why do female elephants live longer than their reproductive years?" An explanation has been offered: some parts of Africa experience 35-year-cycles of rain and drought. Large animals perish during the dry periods. But elephants have long memories and many outlive the cycle. Grandmother elephants remember where springs of water flow beneath the dry, dusty surface. They learned these sites from their grandmothers. The old cows lead the herd to those rare places, dig through the crust and produce water holes for the thirsty calves.
I am always reluctant to use animal behavior as an analogy for human behavior -- their differences are overwhelming! -- but, as we celebrate Jesus' grandparents, we can look at the ministry of grandparents.
Grandparents face particular challenges today. Under the pressures of modern life, many families disintegrate and children are orphaned. Their grandparents have little choice but to take them in and face the trauma of loss with them. Many are raising their grandchildren; some open their homes to their great-grandchildren.
Grandparents remember when families ate, worked, played and prayed together and they teach their grandchildren how to live as family. Many grandparents have finally put aside their own foolish behaviors, those that alienated their children, and can atone for their youth with their new ministry.
Historians who study religion in the United States say, "The children try to remember what their parents tried to forget." This has been true of Protestant religions since the Revolution; it has become true of Catholics since the Second Vatican Council. Many Catholic children of the Boom Generation have a fondness for old fashioned prayers and rituals, the very "traditions" that so repelled their parents. Some young priests glory in cassocks and birettas, sending older priests like me into hysterics.
Religious grandparents keep our traditions alive; they remember the devotions of their own grandparents -- sacrificial giving, the rosary, pilgrimages, novenas and Sunday Mass. Many grandparents attend daily Mass. Like old elephants, they teach their grandchildren these ancient ways and preserve them for generations to come.