So, what do you suppose Mary and Joseph were feeling in those three—that’s three—days that led up to finally finding their son and our dear Lord and not-so-considerate Savior hanging out in the Temple impressing all those religious scholars with his answers? Not having children of my own, it’s a feeling I can only imagine, but my guess it’s something along the lines of the absolute worst combination of feelings in the world: terror, guilt, anger at yourself for letting him out of sight, worry. Surely there are others, and none of them good.
Now imagine the feeling of finding him—finally—and discovering that, well, he wasn’t exactly lost at all. He’d actually taken it upon himself to abscond and follow his interests to the Temple, where he was probably enjoying himself impressing all those teachers.
Which leads me to my main question: Exactly how many deep breaths did Mary have to take before she asked her almost serene question: “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” Great anxiety, eh. So, how many breaths—like 1,000 or something. Honestly, I think my response would have been something more like, “Listen, kid, Son of God or not, as long as you live under my roof… You’re grounded until you are 30!”
To be fair, perhaps we could put ourselves in Jesus’ place and, if we are older, try to remember as best we can what it was like to be an adolescent: just coming to understand ourselves as different from our parents, maybe already discovering what makes us tick, and maybe wondering if our parents were really interested in knowing what we wanted— and feeling sometimes like they weren’t, really.
Maybe we have even said something like: “Where did you think I’d be? If you’d been paying attention to me you’d know where I was.” And for Jesus, that meant his Father’s house. Looks like the holiday family drama we both read about and perhaps experience has a long pedigree, all the way back to Passover in the year 12-ish—even God’s human family is not immune!
And this, by the way, is the family that is often referred to as the “holy” family: In fact, in the Roman Catholic Church, today is actually called the “feast of the Holy Family.” And guess what: This is the gospel reading they are hearing today, too: The story of a “holy” family full of hurt feelings and misunderstanding, frantic parents who don’t quite get it and teens with independent streaks and sharp tongues. Does that sound familiar to any other families here? If so, it turns out we are all in fine company.
In addition to perhaps making us all feel a bit better about the quirks and even difficult misunderstandings in our own families, I wonder too if this story doesn’t invite us to come back for a minute to the combination of the words “holy” and “family.” If we ever we are tempted to imagine a family that’s always together for dinner (with phones put away), never forgets to say grace, and works out all their issues with good, healthy conversation about our feelings and apologies all around, this story is an encouraging reminder that a holy family is a bit more complicated.
If we take this story seriously as an expression of God’s word, in fact, there is apparently no conflict between family holiness and the inevitable misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and thoughtlessness that are part and parcel of life together. Those rough patches are not only par for the course, they are also moments of grace, opportunities to discover and embrace, gingerly perhaps, God’s presence and action within us and between us.
This God of ours, after all, never seems to limit the divine self only to moments when everyone is being nice and following the rules. If the 12-year-old Jesus is any indication, not to mention the rest of his life, the contrary is true.
All of which point to some suggestions for us as we live together in our own holy families, the first of which is to give ourselves a little grace: God is not asking us to be perfect families— whatever on earth that could mean— but holy ones, open to God in all of life’s moments, and trusting that God is present even when we aren’t at our best. And when we inevitably aren’t, our two main characters, Mary and Jesus, point to a couple of ways we might hang in there together.
First, Mary, who, as the story goes, after her 1,000 deep breaths, was able to make room for curiosity about her son in the midst of what was surely a whirling mixture of relief, anger, and disbelief. Through it all she was able to ask him what was going on in a way that affirmed her love for him and was really honest about how his behavior made her feel. And she was even able to treasure all of it in her heart.
And then there was Jesus, who despite his initial declaration, got back in line and “was obedient” to his parents—recognizing perhaps that he could be true to himself and to his calling while still taking the feelings and needs of his parents into consideration. And he grew in wisdom and grace, too.
Curiosity and consideration—not a bad prescription for negotiating the more difficult moments of family life, and maybe not always guaranteed to help. But when they do, they could also open us a bit more to the ways God might be speaking to us in those situations, and so help take a few more baby steps into the combination of “holy” and “family” God is creating us to be.