by Br Julian McDonald cfc

Three days later, they found him in the Temple, sitting among the doctors, listening to them, and asking them questions…His parents were overcome when they saw him, and his mother said to him: “My child, why have you done this to us? See how worried your father and I have been, looking for you?” “Why were you looking for me?”, he replied, “Did you not know that I must be busy with my Father’s affairs? …His mother stored all these things in her heart. Luke 2, 41-52

As I sat down to write this reflection, I found myself wondering if Jesus actually said the words attributed to him or if Luke put them into the mouth of Jesus in order to teach his community something about discipleship. Imagine, for a moment, how modern-day parents might respond if their adolescent son, missing for three days, turned up and told them that there was no need to be worried sick because he was busy “doing God’s work”. We would not be surprised if they were ready to wring his neck.

Yet, we would not be wrong if we were to conclude that all the anguish could have been avoided had either set of parents been told by their son, in advance, what he intended doing for three days.

I’m inclined to think that Luke put this story into his Gospel to parallel it with the events surrounding Jesus’ death. Just before he was killed, Jesus made a journey to the Temple in Jerusalem at Passover time. There he engaged in conflict with religious leaders. And he was missing in the tomb for three days before his resurrection.

Even though the adolescent Jesus’ explanation to Mary and Joseph looks to be somewhat insolent, he is actually correct in saying that they should have known that he was engaged in his Father’s affairs. After all, isn’t it true to say that we all have a responsibility to be involved in God’s affairs by living and acting in ways that reflect God’s love, care and compassion to everyone we encounter. It is God’s business to reach out to all those who are lonely, forgotten, neglected and alienated form a society that needs to care for them.

Nonetheless, this must have been a stressful moment for both Mary and Joseph who had been searching frantically for their missing son. Perhaps Luke was merely intent on only giving the headlines to his audience. So, there’s not even a hint of an apology from Jesus. All we are told is that Mary took time to understand what her challenging son had said, and to ponder it in her heart. While Luke puts the focus on Mary, there is nothing to suggest that Joseph, too, did not puzzle over the significance of what Jesus had said to him and Mary.

There’s a story told of a holy hermit who had given consolation and encouragement to a wealthy man who had lost his way in life and slipped into all kinds of addictive behaviours. When the wealthy man was fully rehabilitated, he expressed his appreciation to the hermit by presenting him with a beautifully illustrated and valuable copy of the Bible. The hermit placed the Bible on a stand in his hermitage for everyone who visited him to see. Some months later, a very sick traveller came to the hermit looking for help. It took the holy man many months to nurse his visitor back to health. Then, one day when the hermit was out looking after poor people in the district, his guest took the precious Bible and fled.

It turned out, however, that the man was arrested in connection with another crime and thrown into prison. Those who arrested him realized that the Bible in his possession had been stolen from the hermit, and they returned it. The hermit, however, went to the prison where the man was being held, forgave his one-time guest, and presented him with the precious Bible. The man still had to see out his prison term. That gave him time to reflect on his own life. When he was finally released, the first thing he did was to go back to the hermit and return the Bible. “You can keep it, my friend”, said the hermit. “If you sell it, you will get enough to make a fresh beginning in life.” “I don’t want the book, and I don’t want the money”, the man said. “All I want is whatever it is inside you that made you want to give it to me when you visited me in prison.”

Both Mary and the Bible thief found time to ponder things that happened in their lives. As a consequence, they changed. Clearly, there’s a message that reflection on the events of our lives can change us, too.

Mary and Joseph must have experienced intense fear throughout their three-day search. That’s the experience that every parent goes through when a child goes missing. Moreover, we all know that intense fear leaves an indelible mark on us, despite the relief that comes when the cause of our fear evaporates. We still imagine what could have happened, and the memories of what could have been stay with us for a long time. In a book entitled Leaping: Revelations and Epiphanies (Loyola Press, Chicago 2003), the spiritual writer Brian Doyle observes that we can all learn something from the fearful experiences that come our way. He concludes that the only effective way through fear is love and the only lasting light to guide us when fear grips us is compassion. Now that’s something worthy of reflection!

I am reminded of Marianne Williamson’s remarks about fear in her book A Return to Love (1992). Williamson is an American writer and social activist, who co-founded the Peace Alliance, a group dedicated to working for world peace. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, in 2014 Williamson stated that “Each of us has a unique part to play in the healing of the world.” In A Return to Love, she describes what she had learned from the fear she had experienced in her own life:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us most. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us. It is not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And, as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

I wonder if that’s what Jesus glimpsed in the course of his exchange with the doctors in the Temple. Even though he was still an adolescent, maybe he discovered in his interaction with the Temple elders some of his potential, and then started to ask himself where developing his own potential to the full might lead him. That would have been enough to frighten any precocious twelve-year-old!

I suspect that the prospect of getting involved in God’s business of peace-making, forgiving, advocating for justice frightens us all. But knowing that Jesus walked that way first helps us to take the risk.