by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“This child is chosen by God for the destruction and the salvation of many in Israel. He will be a sign from God which many people will speak against… ‘Did you not know I must be about my Father’s business?’”
Luke 2, 22-52
(Please note that in some places today’s gospel reading is Luke 2, 22-40)

Bringing up a child presents all parents with a succession of challenges. We know from our observations that most children adopt their parents’ values and attitudes, at least until they reach adolescence. They often pick up their parents’ mannerisms and style of relating and communicating. They even mirror their parents’ prejudices, ambitions and political views. In their infancy, children learn to trust, to love and to depend, through being touched, held in warm embrace and fed and bathed regularly.

Adolescence is often a time characterized by rebellion, petulance and emotional unpredictability. It can also be a time when young people, in their quest for independence, take risks, branch out on their own and express their initiative in creative and healthy ways.

Today’s gospel tells us something about the way in which Jesus grew and developed in a small family that belonged to a tightly ordered society. We are told, too, that his religiously observant parents took him as a child to the temple in Jerusalem, where they fulfilled “all that was required by the Law of the Lord.” They might well have had second thoughts had they known in advance the reception they would get from Simeon and Anna – two energetically devout, elderly people, symbols of those ever-faithful women and men who are the pillars of our churches today. Mary and Joseph could not have imagined that their son, whom they were consecrating to God, would one day return and, in a fit of anger, overturn the tables of the money-changers and the precincts of that same temple. Surely they would have been embarrassed to think that he would have heated debates with their religious leaders, would disrespect their laws and even encourage his disciples to do likewise. Yet it was at things like this that Simeon was hinting when he foretold that the child Jesus would create division and was “destined to be a sign that is rejected”.

There is no evidence in scripture to allow us to conclude that the seeds of Jesus’ thinking, feeling and acting in his adult life were sown by Joseph and Mary. However, the values of prayerfulness, honesty and integrity that he grew to espouse are values that every parent works to instill in their children. As children mature, we come to learn that many of them are full of surprises. They take new directions and make life choices that go beyond everything their parents ever dreamed of. Jesus was clearly in that category. But he surely learned from his parents that centring one’s life on God is indispensible. He learned their values, yet found his own way of giving practical expressioin to those values.

The incident of Jesus, in his early adolescence, confounding the teachers in the temple, identifies him as being something of a child prodigy. That’s a theme that has been part of stories and legends across generations. Stories in which children outsmart learned and powerful adults appeal to the child in most of us. In our childhood, we all enjoyed the repetition of the English fairy-tale, Jack and the Beanstalk, in which Jack gets the better of the giant, claims the giant’s treasure, and saves his widowed mother from destitution. Hansel and Gretel trick the wicked witch, Red Riding Hood finally outsmarts the wolf, and, in the Book of Samuel, we learn how David, in his youth, prevailed over the might of the Philistines by bringing down Goliath with a stone and a slingshot.

Today’s gospel reading describes how Jesus, a youngster from an obscure village, with no formal education, confounds the elite teachers in the temple. It is a story to assure us that no matter how humble our origins, how insignificant our resources, how low our social status, we all have human dignity and the assurance that God is with us. As a consequence, we are encouraged to settle for nothing less. All too often, we can slip into being hesitant, insecure and fearful because we convince ourselves that our gifts might make us stand out from the crowd, if we express them fully. In her book A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles, Marianne Williamson comments on that tendency, to which we are all prone:
“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 most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s 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.” (Published by HarperOne, 1996)

Do we ever stop to think that Jesus got it right when he said to his parents: “Didn’t you realise that I must be about my Father’s business?” As an adolescent, he had already come to appreciate that God’s business is about reaching out to the needy, promoting peace and justice, forgiving those who have offended us, treating with respect and dignity everyone we encounter in our day-to-day lives. St Irenaeus reminded us that: “The glory of God is men and women fully alive.” Are we courageous enough to shine the glory of God on our world?
So, today’s stories of Simeon’s understanding of how Jesus’ life could unfold and of Jesus startling the most learned scholars of the Jewish Law are invitations to us to remind ourselves of what it means to live as sons and daughters of God. They are invitations to let our light shine at its best and brightest.