Homily: Who Is This Child?

There probably isn’t a parent of grown children who doesn’t shudder at the memory of experiences like Mary and Joseph’s this week. What parent hasn’t felt pit-of-the-stomach fear when a child is out of our sight and unaccounted for? It’s more than uneasiness. It’s anxiousness with pain. And what parent hasn’t felt both the relief of finding that child and the exasperation prompted by the child’s utter self-confidence because they knew that they weren’t the one who were lost?

Mary actually sounds aggravated as she addresses her unusual child. She is hardly the meek and mild Blessed Virgin Mary young girls were taught to imitate. And Jesus himself sounds almost, well, impertinent. My own parents would have considered such a response from us ‘talking back’.

It seems to be part of the human condition, in navigating the difficult passage from childhood to adulthood, to experience a tension between family and “the world out there,” between safe nurture and broader horizons, between a circle of care and a strong sense of self. When do parents think one way, and children begin to think another? Just about the age that Jesus was when he was lost and found in the temple by a distraught Joseph and Mary.

And most of the time, those adolescents are as self-assured and unflappable as Jesus was when he was finally found. How could Jesus, being fully human as well as fully divine, make the passage from childhood through that delightful stage of adolescence and on to full adulthood without experiencing some kind of transitional tension?

Our own age and culture seem much more oriented toward raising young adults keenly aware of themselves as individuals (for better or worse), but even in the Mary and Joseph were raising Jesus, sooner or later, a boy had to become a man. And our gospel today gives us a glimpse into what that passage may have felt like to the three people most affected by it.

Mary was so affected, in fact, that she continued, we are told, to “treasure” these things in her heart. Erma Bombeck once wrote about “things to think about while I’m ironing.” It isn’t hard to imagine what Mary thought about as she did her weaving, and cleaning, and cooking so long ago.

As is common in many other cultures and times, a son (especially the oldest) had a strong emotional bond with his mother and a marked sense of his own importance, to the point of being ‘spoiled’ and of concluding that “his every word to women is like law.” Having been raised in the tender protection of the women in his family, it’s understandable that he eventually felt the need to join the men in the community. At this point, the young boy was unceremoniously shoved out of the comfort of the women’s world into the harsh and hierarchical men’s world.

It seems that Jesus was in the midst of this kind of transition, in the gray area between one time in his life and another, and it was in that gray area that Mary and Joseph both lost sight of him.

When they finally found him, he was sitting squarely in the middle of a gathering of adult men, not, in some supernatural way, giving them all the answers to their questions, but engaging them “man-to-man,” in an adult conversation about the questions pressing on them all. And they, lake so many others before and after them were “amazed” at what they heard.

The text does not assume that Jesus is engaged in a contest and besting his opponents as though this were some first-century version of Jeopardy. Rather, Jesus is engaged in a lively and respectful conversation and demonstrating a wisdom well beyond his years.

Something very significant has shifted in Jesus’ relationship with his parents at the end of this scene. It has happened quietly. There is a sharp contrast between the peace and quiet of the temple then and the hubbub there before the festival pilgrims had returned home. One might say it is not unlike our own churches right after Christmas. In their wake, the peace in the temple is palpable. There are plenty of seats for those whose devotion is year-round, and plenty of time to talk together about things that matter.

In that setting, Jesus seizes the moment and steps into a kind of spotlight. Maybe he’s had enough of childish things and wishes to mark his maturation with an exclamation point. Maybe he does not think he is lost.

In any case, the temple becomes a kind of home for Jesus, and Luke will take us back there many times: Jesus will even have to

clean house at one point, because he understands the significance of whose house it really is. His Father’s house is his house too and demands his attention. Where is our attention?

Indeed, where is our attention paid most of the time? How much do we see the church as our home? Is church a place where we can talk together about things that matter?

And are we paying enough attention to the young people in our midst who may have gifts and thoughts to share with us, and who need the church to recognize what their parents might miss in an everyday, close-up relationship? Are we helping our young people to discern God’s gifts in them, and God’s call to use them for the sake of the reign of God?

Jesus grew sturdily from his religious roots, not in spite of them. He came to understand himself as Wisdom’s child as well as Mary’s. His first awareness of his parentage comes to him in his Father’s house. What sense of identity does the church give to our children? What roots do they have in the church? And there are other generational dimension we need to face also, for there may be Simeons or Annas sitting there, the much older generation just waiting for permission to say what they see when they look at the children of this congregation.

We all, no matter what our age, have an obligation, a challenge to develop our faith. It isn’t just dropped on us, a finished product, from out of the sky. We certainly can’t measure up to the “precociousness and charisma of Jesus, a kind of know-it-all attitude about everything religious that provokes astonished perplexity and occasional irritation in his listeners. How very necessary it is for us to grow our relationship with God.

Notice the similarity between Jesus’ question to his parents, “Why have you been searching for me?” and the question asked by the angel at the tomb, “Why do you search for the living among the dead?” Our spiritual growth is a lifelong experience of questioning.

And it’s reassuring to know that Jesus grew, too. For there is no getting around the fact that, not only is there character development for Jesus in the Gospels, but also Jesus even had to struggle to think about who he was and who he should be.

There’s more to this than simply figuring out who we are or what we must do. There is the question of maturity, and the challenge for us in a new year may be to resolve to deepen our maturity in faith. For example, would anyone find us in church, discussing the things that really matter? Do we simply listen to the Sunday scripture readings the same way we might have listened to them as children, or are we continuing to grow as adults, into informed, inquisitive and open-minded Catholics, using the information scholars have given us and seeking the guidance of the Spirit of the Stillspeaking God?

As I have mentioned before, this homily and all my homilies are now on our parish website. And there is also the opportunity there to make comments regarding them, and to comment on the remarks of others. I imagine – no, I guess hope – that very interesting dialogues could spring up there. Are we open to where that might lead us? As we seek for Jesus this year, perhaps it is Jesus who will find – and use – us

And then there is the question of family, and family values: much later in his ministry, Jesus has some interesting things to say about family – about brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers – when they seem to keep us from our call to follow him. Even now, as a child, he cannot be deterred from what He calls “My Father’s business.”

When family and home draw us into places too safe for growth and too comfortable for giving, we’re called to shine the light of the gospel upon both, asking how the Stillspeaking God is calling us out, out to the unfamiliar and the risky and the different, out to the places of growth, generosity, and new life.

We have come through a season that is at once family-centered and yet often full of family tensions, from money problems to old hurts brought to new life, from pressures and misunderstandings to unfulfilled expectations and disillusionment. The people who love one another most disappoint and hurt one another most deeply. The lovely image of shepherds and stars and angels singing in the night gives way a week later to anxious parents perplexed at their adolescent son’s preoccupation with things above their understanding. Will life ever be the same for any of them — or for us?

Of course, the answer to that question is simply, “no.” Nothing will remain unchanged after the incarnation, including our family lives. And that is where the anguish and the perplexed hearts of Mary and, surely, Joseph share common ground with our own questions and pain. But, be reassured; this story gives hope for families of all kinds and conditions on this day. The model of living that the holy family offers is not, as is sometimes depicted in romantic paintings and portraits, that of a family perfectly ordered and without division or differences. Rather, it is of a family that lives into messy moments with the confidence that God in Christ Jesus has entered and redeems them from within.

On the edge of a New Year, our lives feel new in this moment, and we too are still young, still growing, still seeking God’s guidance and wisdom for the direction of the life we share together in our church community and in our families. Where are the places, and when are the moments, when we may be called away from the safe and the familiar to new and truly risky experiences of faith?

© Kate Huey hueyk@ucc.org


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