In this week’s gospel passage, we get a look at a moment in the life of the holy family, Mary, Joseph and Jesus. But there’s more to this account than meets the eye. The passage is taken from the gospel of Luke. It relates an incident that took place when Jesus was twelve years old. His parents had brought him to Jerusalem to celebrate his first Passover as an adult. Travel during Passover was a fun time because extended families traveled together in caravans enjoying each other’s company and catching up on things. Mary and Joseph each thought that Jesus was with the other parent. They had been traveling back to Nazareth for an entire day and only noticed that Jesus wasn’t with them when they stopped to camp for the night. Panicking, they immediately took the dangerous road back to Jerusalem by themselves. They finally discovered him three days later speaking with the teachers in the temple.
This episode most certainly speaks to every parent. What parent wouldn’t be in a panic if they couldn’t locate their child for even five minutes, never mind three days! As my mother said many times, parents never stop worrying about the welfare of their kids, no matter how old their kids might be.
The story of the finding of Jesus in the temple reveals to everyone the humanity of the “holy family.” Anxiety was part of their family life just as it’s part of ours. But there’s also a symbolic element to the passage that makes the story even more compelling.
The day will come when Jesus will again be “lost” for three days. He’ll be killed on a Friday and discovered alive again on Sunday, the day of his resurrection. Christians have come to identify his passage through life, death and resurrection as the paschal mystery.
The story of the finding of Jesus in the temple is a teaching about the movement of this mystery throughout our lives. As individuals, as communities, and as families, we go through cycles of life, death and resurrection. Jesus modeled this mystery in his own life.
When we extend this dynamic to our relationships with friends, associates, colleagues and groups we see that the paschal mystery reaches into our communal experiences as well as our personal lives, and anxiety is once again part of the experience.
For instance, today, many are anxious about the Church and its future. How will the Western Church go on without priests and nuns? Many are anxious about the future of our nation. How will we go on without the democracy we once knew? The Church and the nation aren’t excluded from the life, death, and resurrection of the paschal mystery. And we ask the same question of God as Mary asked of Jesus. “Why have you done this to us?”
The story of the finding in the temple ends with a short, cryptic dialogue. “His mother said to him, ‘Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been searching for you with great anxiety.’ And he said to them, ‘Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’”
Mary’s question is easy for us to understand. In fact, we can all shout “ditto!!”
Jesus’ answer, however, poses a challenge. Why in the world would he ask his parents, “Why were you looking for me?” Why should they have NOT been looking for him? The second part of his question seems even more challenging. “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
Just remember this. Faith and trust are key elements of the paschal mystery. Jesus promised his disciples that the Holy Spirit would assist them through their paschal process. Hiding in the upper room, paralyzed by anxiety, they waited for the Spirit he promised. That Spirit finally came with the power of wind and flame and obliterated their anxiety. With the anxiety gone, Peter got up to speak and the 3000 people who listened to him were baptized that day. They trusted Jesus’ promise and waited for the Spirit. The Spirit came, and the Church was born. They had returned to the security of their father’s house. Their paschal journey led them home. They were ready for whatever the future would bring.
This moment in the life of the holy family gives us great food for thought, and inspiration for our prayer. “They did not understand what he said to them,” but they put their faith and trust in God. They returned to Nazareth celebrating as he “advanced in wisdom and age and favor with God and man.” Mary “kept all these things in her heart.” She would be ready to support him when his hour came, when he submitted to the paschal mystery.
This last Sunday of Advent begins with the clarion voice of the prophet Micah. “Thus says the Lord: You, Bethlehem-Ephrathah too small to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler of Israel.” Bethlehem was the birthplace of Israel’s greatest king, David. He united the twelve tribes and made Jerusalem the national and religious capital. Micah’s prophetic eye sees another king being born in Bethlehem.
The Gospel of Luke adds a commentary about this king. “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his Father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” The commentary continues in the Gospel passage we’re reading today.
Mary had been told that she was going to have a child through the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit. She was also told that her relative, Elizabeth, a woman far beyond the age of conception, was pregnant. Excited, puzzled and frightened, Mary ran to her thinking she might understand what has happened. Their meeting is a poetic commentary on the marvelous event that was unfolding.
Elizabeth represents the old, now sterile, Israel. Mary is the young, fertile, new Israel. At their meeting the child, the last prophet of Israel, leaped for joy in Elizabeth’s womb because the time of waiting was over. Mary’s child will ascend to the throne of David. But his throne won’t be a gilded throne; it will be a cross. And from that cross the kingdom of God will begin the slow process of its manifestation.
Father in heaven,
as I approach the season of Christmas and Epiphany,
enlighten my mind to the meaning of your Son’s birth, death and resurrection.
Help me to see beyond the dark struggles and conflicts
that afflict the world to the bright light of your kingdom shining in my heart.
Help me to free that light through the life I lead and the people I touch.
Help me to be a good and faithful servant in your kingdom.
We listen to a prophet’s voice speaking to Jerusalem in the first scripture today. Zephaniah had been predicting that a terrible day of reckoning was approaching because Israel had lapsed into the worship of foreign gods. At the end of his prophecy, however, Zephaniah directed a ray of hope towards the men and women who had remained faithful to the God of Israel. He encouraged them not to lose hope, promising that the day would come when God himself would come to them as their savior.
“On that day, it shall be said to Jerusalem: fear not, O Zion, be not discouraged! The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior. He will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love. He will sing joyfully because of you, as one sings at festivals.”
The Gospel passage develops Zephaniah’s theme. The scene is the bank of the Jordan River where John was baptizing. We’re told that as John preached “the people were filled with expectation.” Those who listened to his message became fully engaged, feeling an urgency to prepare themselves for the imminent arrival of the Christ. The people asked John what they should do. He called them to compassion. “Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise.” When the tax collectors asked him what they should do he called them to honesty and justice. “Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages.”
John warned the crowd that the Christ was the Son of Man who would be coming with a winnowing fan in his hand to separate the chaff from the grain. The day of cleansing and purification was near – but so was the day they had all hoped for – the day the Christ would reveal himself and the reign of God would begin.
The scriptures throughout the weeks of Advent are meant to re-ignite our hope. We believe that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, the Christ. He came as our savior. So, what are we hoping for?
Jesus’ central teaching was about the kingdom of God. He said that “the kingdom of God is within you.” He said that the kingdom was like a tiny seed planted within each of us. During the weeks of Advent, we focus our hope on the seed planted within us. We hope that the kingdom of God may manifest itself soon. We hope that the seed in each of us will grow into a tree that’s so large that “the birds of the air can nest in its branches.” We hope that soon our prayer will become a reality. “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
The Church’s liturgical year has begun. This is the second week of Advent and it rings with the poetry of the prophet Isaiah. Focus on his word. Listen closely. You can hear noisemakers in the distance. And if you listen even more intently, you’ll hear the commotion of celebration and tear-filled shouts of joy.
“Jerusalem! Take off your robe of mourning and misery; put on the splendor of glory… Up Jerusalem! Stand upon the heights; look to the east and see your children gathered from the east and the west at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that they are remembered by God.”
It was the year 539 BCE. King Cyrus of Persia had conquered the Babylonian Empire and freed the Jewish people who were in exile there. They were beginning their journey back to Jerusalem. They could go home.
The Church uses Isaiah’s message of hope to direct our vision as we begin another liturgical year. Throughout the centuries the Church has held this text close to its heart because it touches that place, deep within the human person, that somehow always feels in exile. It touches that longing we all have and struggle to verbalize. We long for peace. We long for security. We long for joy and happiness. We long for many things, but ultimately, we long for home.
The Gospel for today is taken from the third chapter of Luke’s infancy narrative. In one beautiful run-on sentence he announces the Good News that our hope is about to come to fulfillment.
“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John, the son of Zachariah, in the desert.”
The next two Sundays we’ll listen to the words of hope proclaimed by the prophets Zephaniah and Micah. We’ll listen to John the Baptist sharing his message of hope. We’ll listen to the message that the angel Gabriel brought to a young girl in Nazareth. We’ll listen to her response.
We begin the first weeks of the new year by setting our gaze on the path that leads home. “Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight and the rough ways smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”