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His Wondrous Childhood

Sunday after the Epiphany BCP

08 January 2006 11:00 | Fr. Roderick Leece

Regardless of alternative lifestyles and arrangements, or responding to a vocation to the monastic life which requires celibacy, or the deep friendship shared by many people, the norm for most people on the planet remains the family unit.

We aren't told much about Jesus and his upbringing in the Holy Family. Whatever happened between the birth, the escape/flight into Egypt, and today's story (and afterwards for that matter)? What did a childhood in a marginal village called Nazareth amount to, and consist of? We can imagine the family sleeping in modest quarters, worshipping in the local synagogue. We can perhaps picture them eating and praying together (for the two go very much hand in hand even to this day in Jewish families), making the regular pilgrimages to Jerusalem for Passover, learning the Scriptures and prayers off by heart. It was in Nazareth that Jesus' character grew…strong, earthed and true, not warped, distorted, or wounded and unbalanced. Here he learned affection and resilience, self-confidence and respect, and how to use words in the most beautiful and sublime fashion. It was here too, he was prepared for being misunderstood, maltreated, betrayed, tortured and put to death. His character was formed in the middle of nowhere, in the quietness and goodness of a tiny home occupied by two peasants, amidst the struggles and hardships they faced together.

Many paintings, sculptures, illuminations, poems and plays of the medieval period dwell lovingly on the normal down to earth aspects of life for the Holy Family of Nazareth. One fourteenth-century orphrey on a vestment depicts Jesus learning to walk on a baby-walker of the period, while mother and father watch nervously. There are other images of the boy collecting wood shavings from the work-shop floor whilst Joseph planes and Mary spins. A lovely illumination, again from the 14th Century, shows Jesus going to school, holding onto his mum with one hand, and with the other pulling his writing slate. For the musically minded we even have a portrait of little Jesus performing with an orchestra of angels, tinkling some bells with enchanted child-like excitement. This tradition of joy in ordinary things, and delight in down to earth living, is all inspired by the truth of the Incarnation.

These imaginings concerning Jesus' childhood give way to reality as we listen to today's account of the family trip to the big city. The source which St. Luke uses in the gospel passage is the book of Samuel. He borrows the words describing the infancy of Samuel, and re-uses them for both John the Baptist and Jesus…who grew in wisdom stature and favour, with both God and man. But Jesus' behaviour as a boy on the brink of teenage years is, by any reckoning, a little strange. What about the commandment to honour thy father and mother? His parents are anxious and must change their plans, they are caused hassle in terms of time and money, and there is no hint of any apology or even mild regret. But there are some lovely human lessons here. Often we may be unaware of Jesus' presence, deaf to his voice, but hope and assume he is there, somewhere within the community, even though we don't make the effort to look. Perhaps it is reassuring to be reminded that Mary and Joseph made that mistake as well, presuming their son was somewhere in the crowd on the journey home…taking a day to notice his absence. Losing Jesus caused them such alarm and sorrow…but they found him on the third day…

Whatever the twelve-year-old boy is up to at the Temple in Jerusalem is clearly a priority for him. These are, after all, the very first words of Jesus which are recorded for us : 'Wist ye not that I must be about my Father's business?' This business leads, at another Passover twenty years later, to Golgotha, as he fulfils his Father's design.

Yet Jesus' words to his parents here, appear somewhat harsh. Especially since Mary and Joseph, had themselves been busy about the Father's affairs, each responding obediently to God's message… Mary by an angel, and Joseph in his dreams. Jesus, when he is older, overturns tables and causes a commotion in the same spot. When he disrupts the Temple later on he says 'My house shall be called a house of prayer' and maybe there is a link with today's story. St. Luke's whole Gospel emphasises Jesus' life of prayer…being busy with his Father's affairs. In the Temple he must have found a house of prayer and a place of learning and debate par excellence. That sense of the sacred, and of pilgrimage, endures to this day, and prayers are being offered for critically ill Ariel Sharon as I speak, at the Western Wall of the same temple. Those who have been to Jerusalem probably know what I mean when I say the city feels like the centre of the world, and on the Temple Mount you feel at the heart of it all.

God is the centre of all being, and love is at the heart of it all, encountered and approached above all else through prayer and contemplation. I imagine Jesus thought it peculiar that anyone would want to do anything other than spend as long as possible in the house of prayer. Where else to look for him and find him? St. Luke ends with Jesus willing to accept the authority of his parents…he 'was subject unto them'…but this comes after making the deeper point that our relationship with God comes before all others…even parents. Our true home is not a postal address, but is with God.

The finding in the Temple is one of the joyful mysteries of the Rosary. But already the joy is shot through with alarm and questioning…the likelihood that love will entail loss…the folly of trying to possess those we love. The joy of true faith is always earthed in reality. Sorrow, difficulties and pain were no strangers to the Holy Family…the very holiness in the title we ascribe them is itself fashioned by sacrifice and struggle. No doubt there are many families who endeavour to be about the Father's business, putting God before all else and all others, and love at the heart of all things. The neighbours would have been astonished to learn who was living in that little dwelling in Nazareth, and how their story unfolded. We are, each of us, called to be about the Father's business, increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man…and see how our story unfolds. He knows what he is about.

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