Christmastide — First Sunday after Christmas | Luke 2:41-52
A Child at Christmas
We wonder what Jesus was like as a child, but there is nearly nothing in the gospels to tell us. Perhaps there were stories passed around by the early church, lost tales of a young Jesus, stories we do not have. This passage in Luke’s Gospel is as close as we get.
The story, told in a sparse, almost journalistic style, tells of Jesus and his parents and presumably his siblings going to Jerusalem for the passover celebration. We know that Jesus did have brothers and sisters. In the third chapter of Mark, Mary and the brothers and sisters of Jesus hear about him teaching in public and come to do an intervention (an interesting story in itself.) In Matthew 13:55, the evangelist goes so far as to name the brothers of Jesus—James and Joseph and Simon and Judas, if you were wondering. Traditionally the church addresses the theological problem of God incarnate having brothers and sisters either by calling them cousins or by carefully making the claim that these are only half brothers and sisters, sharing a mother but not a father. The gospels themselves are not so particular. Whatever way we choose to understand the theological assertion that Jesus is God become human through the miracle of being born to Mary, the rest of the family still existed. If you are part of a mixed family, you might reflect that you have something in common with Jesus.
It makes little sense to think Joseph would bring his wife and one child to the Passover celebrations but leave the rest of the family at home. In for a penny, in for a pound, most likely, particularly when one considers the apparent close connections of extended family and friends who make up the traveling party—if the younger children were left in Nazareth, who stayed with them? We don’t know enough to be sure either way. Most likely there were at least some elderly relatives or friends who did not want to make the trip, and they would have looked after the younger kids, but how young were these siblings? If Jesus was twelve, surely at least some of the other children were old enough to travel? Don’t forget, this is Mary. She perched on a donkey and rode to Bethlehem when her water was about to break.
If Joseph and Mary didn’t realize Jesus was missing for a whole day’s journey, there must have been a good number of other children, friends and family around them. Imagine the panic when they realize that Jesus is lost. Jerusalem was a large city to them, full of more perils than tiny Nazareth. It was full of devout Jews to be sure, but there were plenty of less devout ones, Romans, foreign traders, all kinds of people. Luke tells us that after three days Joseph and Mary found Jesus in the Temple. We can’t quite tell whether this is three days total or three days plus that first day, but three or four days is a long time when you cannot find your child.
By the way, perhaps we are meant to reflect on those three days. It is an intentional detail—as Jesus as a child is realizing his calling, he goes missing for three days. At the end of it all, when Jesus the man has followed the path he perceives God prepared for him, there are those other three days between dying and living.
Luke gives us a hint of the mix of relief and anger expressed at the reunion, with Mary berating her son for treating them in such a fashion but immediately taking him home. There’s an interesting question—did Jesus do wrong by staying behind at the Temple? Did God misbehave?
Let’s leave that one alone. We might not like where it goes.
We do learn something about Jesus and the way he was raised. For one thing, Mary and Joseph clearly did not hover. They gave their children some freedom. The kids were able to move among their network of extended family and friends without being constantly watched.
Jesus also had an early inclination to theology. That should not surprise anyone. God studying theology is introspective but natural.
We might wonder about that scene at the Temple. When his parents found him, Jesus was “…sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.”
Yes, yes, we say, but then he was God incarnate. What else would we expect?
I have to wonder whether Jesus amazed them because he was God among them or simply because he was a child among them. He was young enough not to have been pressed into the mold of ordinary thought. Twelve is just the right age to start wrestling with the ideas we are handed about God and morality: we are emerging from childhood and yet we retain the simple and frank vision of a child.
They were astonished, we read, but why? Were they astonished because of where they found him? Was it because of his poise or his grasp of theology? Was it because he had left them and, knowing they would be frantic to find him, he had not gone in search of them but instead sat enjoying himself in the Temple?
Did those men sitting and talking with Jesus even realize that his parents were searching for him? Or were they surprised when Mary showed up and began scolding the boy? And why does Mary do all the talking? What is going through Joseph’s mind when the boy says that he must be in his father’s house?
Do his parents really know who he is? Does any parent realize what is really going on in a child’s mind? Of course, if Christianity has it right, Jesus is a special case.
In this Christmastide season, the twelve days of Christmas, it may do us good to follow Jesus’ example—do a runner, get lost for a bit, and start asking some questions, even if there is nobody offering better answers than we already had.
The rest of the year presses us into the mold of expectations and normality. Let’s not accept what the world tells us about God and our place in the universe: the world is old and jaded, set in its ways. Instead, let’s open up more than packages. Let’s be a child at Christmas.
Part of the Lectionary Project—Third year of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary