The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph [C]
Sirach 3:2-6,12-14 + Colossians 3:12-21 + Luke 2:41-52
[other options: I Samuel 1:20-22,24-28 + Colossians 3:12-17 + 1 John 3:1-2,21-24]
“Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
The event narrated in this Sunday’s Gospel Reading is the focus of the fifth Joyful Mystery of the Dominican Rosary (as opposed to the Carmelite Rosary, within which this event is the sixth Joyful Mystery). However, unlike the prior Joyful Mystery—the Presentation of the infant Jesus in the Temple—the event of Jesus being found in the Temple when He was twelve does not have its own feast day in the Church calendar. In fact, this Sunday’s Gospel Reading is proclaimed at Mass only once every three years, on the Sunday following Christmas Day (by contrast, in the Missal of the Extraordinary Form, this passage is proclaimed each year during Christmastide).
The event of Jesus being found in the Temple is unique, among other reasons, because it’s the only narrative in the four Gospel accounts that tells us about Jesus between his infancy and His Baptism at the age of thirty. Jesus here is on the verge of turning thirteen, a point of spiritual maturity which throughout Jewish history has been marked by the ritual of bar mitzvah. That Jesus in this Gospel passage is so young makes what He says and does all the more remarkable.
When Mary and Joseph find Jesus in the Temple, He is asking the teachers questions. We might wonder why the divine Son of God—the eternal Word—is asking questions of human persons. Yet many famed teachers such as the Greek philosopher Socrates asked questions as a means of teaching. The “Socratic method” is used even today by subtle teachers to help their students think their way through complex matters. In fact, after noting that Jesus asked the teachers questions, the evangelist notes that “all who heard him were astounded at his understanding and his answers.”
Nonetheless, this Gospel passage is not chiefly about Jesus as a teacher. This fact reflects a larger truth about Jesus: that His vocation on earth is not chiefly to be a teacher. Clearly, throughout the Gospel accounts we hear Jesus teach profoundly. This is not surprising given that Jesus is, as St. John the Evangelist records, the divine Word made flesh. A word is, by design, meant to be communicated to another.
Yet everything that Jesus taught had a deeper motive: to move the hearer into union with God. This movement can only occur when the hearer freely sacrifices his or her life in order to follow Jesus—the Word made Flesh—wherever He calls.
This divine Word calls different individuals by means of different paths through the world. Some are called to Holy Matrimony, others to consecrated life, some to Holy Orders, and some remain single in order to give a unique witness in the world. Nonetheless, each of these paths requires self-sacrifice. This self-sacrifice is not merely an imitation of the self-sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary. His followers share directly in the power of His sacrifice on Good Friday. This sharing, and the self-sacrifice of Jesus’ disciples, is only possible by means of the grace that flows from the Cross through prayer and the sacraments.
So, then, if this Sunday’s Gospel Reading is not chiefly about Jesus being a teacher, what is its chief focus? It’s revealed by the second question that Jesus asks Mary and Joseph: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
The evangelist tells us that Mary and Joseph did not understand these words of Jesus. But what part of His words could have confused them? They certainly knew that God, rather than Joseph, was Jesus’ “natural Father”.
More likely, Mary and Joseph’s lack of understanding stemmed from Jesus abiding in His Father’s house instead of returning to the earthly house of the Holy Family. Yet abiding in the Temple on earth was the fullest expression at this point in His earthly journey of Jesus, in His sacred humanity, dwelling in union with God the Father. The Temple on earth, after all, foreshadowed God’s eternal abode in Heaven, which was the “house” to which Jesus must eventually return.
Yet Jesus was meant by the Father to be “the first-born among many brethren” [Romans 8:29]. Jesus’ vocation on earth was to lead many to adoption by His Father through the power of His self-sacrifice on the Cross. The Temple and its sacrifices foreshadowed the Sacrifice of Calvary, which of all the moments of His earthly journey most fully expressed Jesus’ union with His divine Father, and for that matter, with fallen man. Yet the loving self-sacrifice of the Cross itself foreshadows the heavenly life of the Trinity, each of the three divine Persons pouring Himself out in love for the other two: a divine life which is the destiny of each disciple of Jesus.