How to Play It?
If you are preaching on December 26th (and I hope that most parish pastors have come up with some other plan for that day), you have two choices initially. Will you observe the Feast of Stephen – and sing “Good King Wenceslas” (along with appropriate commentary), or will you observe the First Sunday after Christmas? I’ll begin by reflecting on the gospel reading for the First Sunday after Christmas. I’ll see if I get to any Stephen-tide reflections along the way.
The text is really Luke 2:21-52. Whether you choose to read that whole text at worship or not, this is the Lukan framework for experiencing and interpreting the text. I want to begin by focusing on a number of small details that might impact, first of all, how one would perform the text. How would you play the dialogue between Jesus and his parents?
“Child,” his mother says to Jesus. This is not the term for a very young child or infant but for one who has grown some but still have not achieved the adulthood which would have been less than a year in the future for a twelve-year-old. This is the first word and reminds us all (including Jesus, one would think) of the nature of the relationship between him and Mary.
That being said, do you read it with an exasperated exclamation point after the word? “Child!” Having lost track of a child more than once in my parenting career, I’m tempted to play it that way. But that is certainly not the only option. One could sigh with long-suffering parental exhaustion and follow the address by an ellipsis and a weary shake of the head: “Child…”
Or one could put on a scolding tone and even hold up an accusing index finger while raising one’s voice as the word comes out – “ChiLD!” One could even do this dialogue with a bemused sense of parental humor – “Child” (as in, “what in the world have you been up to this time?”).
I lean toward an anxious and frustrated accusation myself, given the length of time spent searching and the expressed anxiety experienced during the search. But that’s not the only option. It’s worth reflecting on this as you consider reading and then preaching on the text. Because questions hover in the background of this text. What did Jesus’ parents know, when did they know it, and did they forget some of it over the years?
“Why have you acted like this toward us?” Mary asks. Again, is this an accusation or a scold? Is it an expression of pain in the midst of the relief? Is it a question about how Jesus could dishonor his parents in front of family, friends, community, and a bunch of strangers? “Jesus, what were you thinking?” Does the question express any sense of betrayal or disappointment? Is this question the source of their parental “amazement”?
“Pay attention! Your father and I have been seeking you, feeling anxious.” Does Jesus’ mother plead to be noticed, to be taken seriously? Does this have more of the flavor of “Look at me when I’m talking to you!” I know we can’t import twenty-first century tween behavior into a first century text. However, I can certainly imagine the eye-rolling and the looking elsewhere that I have experienced when trying to impress the seriousness of a situation on a twelve-year-old. It’s hard for me to keep that out of this scene.
Then there is Jesus. We get no clues from the Lukan account about emotional tone as we do in Mary’s lines. He simply spoke to them. Verse forty-nine begins with an “and,” so there’s no sense of adversative tone or an alteration in perspective. But he does certainly temper the anxiety and perhaps discount it.
“Why was it that you were searching for me?” Does Jesus say this in dismissive tones? Is he genuinely surprised that there was a problem? Is he irritated by the unnecessary interruption? Does he put off his parents in that infuriating manner that tweens have of making it clear that what was happening was really no big deal, so lighten up, will you? I don’t know.
“Didn’t you understand,” he continues, “that it was necessary for me to be in my father’s…?” In my father’s what? The text doesn’t say. The NRSV fills in the blank with “house” since the whole incident takes place in the Jerusalem temple. That’s certainly an option, but we can’t rely on that with certainty. “About my father’s business” is as good a translation as that, but certainly no more secure.
The word for “know” has the underlying sense of understanding rather than mere awareness. “If you had thought about it,” Jesus may be saying, “it might have occurred to you to begin looking for me here rather than coming to this place as a last resort.” That sense of the sentence still doesn’t provide us with any hints about tone. It could easily be uttered as a cutting remark, a comforting reassurance, or an objective observation.
“And they did not comprehend the words which he spoke to them,” the Lukan narrator tells us. What does this assessment mean? That they were too anxious to take it all in, just relieved to have found their boy after all? That it was just too much to take in and required long processing – precisely the thing that his mother did, storing up all these words “in her heart”? Were they confused by the reference to his “father’s house,” which to them was in Nazareth rather than in Jerusalem?
I think the Lukan author wants, in this scene, for Jesus to grow up right in front of us. I would start the reading no later than verse 40, since that seems to serve as an inclusio with verse 52. In verses 40 and 43, Jesus is described as a small child rather than a pre-teen, no matter what the NRSV translation may say in verse 43. That child is the one who decides to remain in Jerusalem rather than to return immediately to Nazareth with his parents.
The text moves us from Joseph as the father of Jesus to the God of Israel as the Father of Jesus. Jesus is a partner in the conversation at the grown-ups’ table. He isn’t giving a theology lecture. Nor is he sitting and taking notes. He is trying both to understand and to contribute to understanding. He is asking questions and proposing answers. He’s beginning to do what rabbis do.
There’s a sense in which this text performs the same function as a spinning globe did in old black and white movies. The globe could represent the passage of time, the movement through space, and often both at the same time. We get a compressed glimpse at Jesus as he grows from child to adult, and as he prepares for the ministry ahead of him. These are the first words we hear from Jesus in the Lukan account. His next words will be his inaugural sermon at Nazareth. We get some preparation for those words in this story.
Perhaps the Lukan author wants us to identify with Jesus’ parents and especially with his mother. Can I allow Jesus to be fully human as well as fully divine? The Lukan author doesn’t give us a poetic theological meditation on the nature of the Incarnation as does the writer of John’s gospel. Instead, we get a story about a child who grows to be a man – one who asks and answers questions, who listens and understands, who prods us beyond our settled assumptions.
Can we stand to have a relationship with the God who doesn’t want us to rest on what we think we know for sure? Can we stand to have a relationship with the God who wants us to have faith in Jesus rather than having faith in having faith?
Are we willing to sit with our uncertainties and discomforts rather than demanding that all our questions be answered, and all our confusions be resolved? Mary ponders. Mary collects experiences and information and lets it all percolate. That’s anxiety-producing for Jesus’ parents and for us. Failing to understand is not permission to reject new information. It is, rather, an invitation to ponder more deeply, to hold contradictory things in tension, to let the Holy Spirit work on us a bit at a time.
Do we expect to “get it” all at once and never have to review or revisit what we have learned about Jesus in the gospels? Somehow, the years have dimmed the light of the angels and dulled their songs. Who Jesus is has ceased to be quite so clear – perhaps because he has simply acted so much and so often like a real boy (Pinocchio is, after all, a resurrection story). How could they have forgotten? Why didn’t they understand?
Because they were normal human beings who need to learn things over again. I’m astonished at the adult Christians who think that they learned the Christian faith once as children and that’s enough. People don’t think that about anything else in life. What if physicians never learned one more thing after medical school? What if carpenters stopped practicing their trade for ten years and then tried to pick it up again? Why should we think that one dose of Jesus should be enough for a lifetime?
What we know about Jesus may not change much. But we surely do. For forty-five years I have read and studied these same texts. I discover something new and life-giving every time I come back to them. That happens for several reasons. I may have retired, but the Holy Spirit has not. The Word has depth, beauty, and complexity that I cannot exhaust in one lifetime. And I am not the same person I was three years ago or thirty-three years ago. There is no reason why the text should seem the same to me.
At the very least, this story calls us to hold what we know and what we believe close in our hearts until it becomes a bit clearer.