I can be a remarkably patient father for a full five minutes. After that, a lot of variables come into play, but once I’m past the five-minute mark, my patience tank often ends up running on fumes. I wasn’t always this way. In fact, if I think back through my life, I can identify some major turning points in my own character. For example, I was once an exceptionally unselfish person. Then I got married. Whatever unselfishness remained after entering marriage also seemed to vanish, right along with my patience and level-headedness, once our children were born.
Of course, despite how I might like to convince myself otherwise, my selfishness and impatience were really part of me all along, but it took the closeness of these very cherished family relationships to bring me face-to-face with my own flaws. So, as a father whose patience tank often runs on empty, even with these kids whom I love so dearly, I find Luke’s final story about Jesus’ childhood to be strangely comforting.
I have two exceptionally kind children (not to mention how cute, talented, smart, humble, etc. they are...and I think I’ve read somewhere that each of those traits can be traced to the skill of the father in the family–especially the humility). Yet even with as great as my kids are, I can’t really wrap my mind around what it might have been like to parent the incarnate Messiah. I think that’s part of why I have found this story at the end of Luke’s second chapter to be much more encouraging in the years since I became a parent. Though it isn’t the point of the story, this passage shows that–regardless of the child’s identity–those on whom we gazed in awe and wonder when they were infants can come to push the limits of any mother or father.
In the gospels’ final story before Jesus’ adulthood, Luke fast-forwards to Jesus at age twelve. Joseph and Mary couldn’t find Jesus among extended family and friends on a return to Nazareth from Jerusalem after the Passover festival, and after going back in search for him, they found the young Jesus in the temple, "sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions." Just as we can identify with Mary’s adoration of her newborn in Bethlehem, we can also identify with her exasperation with him in the temple as she said, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety."
The young Jesus responded to his mother, "Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Mary seems like the type that would have been inclined to keep one of those “things your kids say” journals, if they had existed at the time. (And, well, if you have any indication that your child might end up scoring high on the aptitude tests’ categories for “Messiah,” then such a journal seems like a particularly good idea.) So if Mary had written in one of them, it’s a good bet that this response from Jesus would have been included. Luke adds that Joseph and Mary didn’t understand what Jesus said to them, but Mary obviously stored the memory and the layers of his response may have taken on more meaning for her over time.
Jesus was growing into the identity prophesied about him in those various ways before and after his birth. He was going about his father’s business and growing to love his father’s house. He would come to see the things that would eventually lead to the destruction of that temple where he sat that day, and as the Messiah, the true king, the gospels insist that he would in some mysterious way become that temple where these childhood scenes took place. But all of those parts of his story would come later. For now, the young Jesus left the temple with his mother and went back home to Nazareth, where he would go on to "increase in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” And Mary continued in wonder, as Luke again adds, "His mother treasured all these things in her heart."
Church people like me often emphasize Jesus’ divinity to such a degree that we fail to reflect on his humanity, and that human aspect of Jesus is emphasized in each of these stories about the young, growing, developing Jesus. What did it mean for him to grow? What was it like for him to live at home, do chores, and learn from his parents? One of the problems with under-valuing Jesus’ humanity is that then he becomes much less followable for us, because–well–he’s God, and we aren’t. But as a real human, who grew and lived in real relationships, we realize that we can take similar steps to the ones he took. We can learn to love in our relationships, to put in place a lifestyle of openness to our Father in the heavens, to who we are growing to be in him, and to the people around us. Without that degree of humanity, our central Christmas term of incarnation, and our central Christmas endeavor of adoration, lose all real, practical meaning.
If you are drawn to do so, perhaps you might want to try an exercise as a way of entering a bit more fully into the human realities of these Christmas stories, by intentionally imagining yourself as participating in them. Read them again in the second chapter of Luke if you wish, and as way of pondering them and “treasuring them in your heart," envision yourself there. What might the sights and sounds be? With which character do you most easily identify, or are you just a bystander? What does it feel like? What goes through your mind as you’re there in the presence of the young Messiah? Spend a few moments talking with that Messiah–who really is with you now–about what you experienced imaginatively, and see if he may have any invitations for you today. Then, when you are ready, close your time with the following Christmas prayer: