Christ among the Doctors by Gianantonio Fumiani (1643-1710) (Cameraphoto Arte, Venice / Art Resource, NY)
The Gospel of Luke begins and ends in the great Temple of Jerusalem. For the Jew, the Temple was the holiest place in the universe. It was where that the God of Israel dwelt among his people, a place of worshipful sacrifice, a house of prayer.
In his narrative of Christ’s infancy, St. Luke records that Jesus went to Jerusalem at least twice during the “hidden years” — once as an infant in the arms of Mary and Joseph, and once as an adolescent in the company of his parents and extended family. One might speculate that the Holy Family made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem once, twice or even three times every year for the major feasts. The fact that Joseph and Mary trusted that 12-year-old Jesus would find his way back to Nazareth in the company of their relatives and friends indicates that the pilgrimage was probably a regular event.
One may imagine the impact this pilgrimage to Jerusalem had on the boy Jesus. Jesuit Father Jean Galot writes, “For his pilgrimage to be really true, it had to be a pilgrimage to the Father’s house. This is what increased his desire to go to Jerusalem each year. For him it was a question of the deepest transport of a Son’s heart. His Father’s house was his real house, more so than that of Nazareth.”
There is an important disjunction in this Gospel text: Mary and Joseph, after the celebration of Passover, have their gaze fixed on returning home to Nazareth and their family life. The young Jesus, though, stayed behind and has his gaze fixed on his Father in heaven and the fulfillment of his mission. Having discovered the child’s absence, Mary and Joseph return in haste to Jerusalem to seek their son. Jesus remained in the Temple, magnetized by the presence and love of his Father who dwelt there. When his anxious parents found him after a three-day search, Jesus challenges them to understand his behavior, saying: “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Lk 2:49).
In his recent book, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives (2012), Pope Benedict XVI explains Jesus’ words: “The answer of the twelve-year-old made it clear that he knew the Father — God — intimately. Only he knows God, not merely through the testimony of men, but he recognizes him in himself. Jesus stands before the Father as Son, on familiar terms. He lives in his presence. He sees him. As Saint John says, Jesus is the only one who rests in the Father’s heart and is therefore able to make him known (cf. Jn 1:18). This is what the twelve-year-old’s answer makes clear: he is with the Father, he sees everything and everyone in the light of the Father” (127).
Some exegetes and theologians have irresponsibly suggested that Jesus is acting here like a typical, self-absorbed adolescent. But this interpretation ignores at least one basic Christological truth: The Incarnate Word, at every moment of his life on earth, perfectly accomplished the will of his Father in heaven. Jesus remained in Jerusalem because the Father willed that he stay in the Temple in Jerusalem. The Father willed that Jesus reveal himself to the official Temple scholars and preachers as the teacher and preacher par excellence. The Father willed that Christ prepare his parents to participate in his paschal mystery through faith and parental love.
Finding Jesus in the Temple among the teachers of the law, Mary says to Jesus: “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety” (Lk 2:48). I might suggest that the translation is inadequate. The word used to describe Mary and Joseph’s anxiety is the same word used by Luke to describe the torture of the rich man in the flames of hell (Lk 16:24-25), the suffering of Paul’s disciples when he announces his death to them (Acts 20:38), and Paul’s own deep suffering over his people’s lack of faith (Rm 9:2). Mary tells Jesus that she and Joseph had suffered enormous pains searching for him for the past three days. The shadow of death surely hovers over this scriptural text.
In his Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, St. Ambrose tells us that Jesus accomplished the Father’s will by mercifully preparing Mary to suffer with him and lose him in the three days of his suffering, death and burial. He prepares her also to find him again in the Temple of his risen body.
The Church has intuited that St. Joseph died before the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Joseph loved Jesus with all the natural affection of a father, and Jesus loved him in return. It must have been easy, then, for Joseph to forget in the routine of daily life that he was not the child’s father. When Mary points Joseph out to Jesus as his father by saying, “Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety,” Jesus points out his Father in heaven to Mary and Joseph, placing his mysterious mission before their eyes. The word “father,” so dear to Joseph on the lips of the boy Jesus, becomes the very sword that pierces Joseph’s heart and purifies his love for Christ and for all of us. Jesus asks Joseph to acknowledge at a new depth that he is the Heavenly Father’s only Son. He asks Joseph to be ready to release him for his mission when the appointed time arrives.
On that day in the Temple, Joseph was likely confounded as he had never been before. Imagine the first wave of emotion: Joseph’s little boy seems to turn his back on him. He would rather live in the embrace of his natural Father, in his Father’s house. In these confused emotions, Joseph likely realized what it meant to be the guardian of the Son of God. He bowed in adoration and worship to the God whom Jesus called Abba.
Great was the faith of Abraham when, obeying God’s Word, he was willing to sacrifice his only son on Mount Moriah (cf. Gn 22:1-3). But greater still was Joseph’s faith. He believed that Mary had conceived God’s Son virginally by the power of the Holy Spirit and that the boy he raised was God’s only Son who would “save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:21). Joseph’s faith brought Abraham’s faith to perfection. By believing, Joseph and Mary spiritually generated progeny more numerous than the stars of heaven and the sands on the shore of the sea.
The Church honors St. Joseph with the title “Splendor of the Patriarchs.” This title accentuates the truth that the faith of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the faith of Moses and Aaron, the faith of King David and all of the prophets find fulfillment and completion in Joseph’s faith in the incarnate Word. It is Joseph’s faith in Christ that makes him the “just man” of the New Testament (cf. Mt 1:19). The splendor of Joseph’s faith shining in the hearts of his sons and daughters makes them righteous, holy and pleasing to God.
FATHER FREDERICK L. MILLER, a priest of the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J., and a member of Father Thomas F. Canty Council 3197 in Hillside, is a professor of systematic theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md.