“Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49)
I don’t remember how I got into the habit of using the nick-name “Slick” for Stephen. Really, there was nothing pretentious or cosmopolitan about this kid. He was just an average twelve-year-old with a round, friendly face who looked like any other kid from a blue-collar family in Northeast Philly. He had a jovial way about him, and an openness that reminded me of Curly from the Three Stooges. You couldn’t help but like him.
Stephen hadn’t been a regular in Sunday school, and this really upset his grandmother, Joanne. One day she came to my office and lamented that her daughter-in-law was not sending the grandchildren to church. She wanted to know if there was anything I could do about it. I noticed that Stephen was of age to begin Confirmation studies, so I wrote his mom the sort of guilt-inducing letter which only a clergyman can write, telling her that she and the boy’s father had promised at Stephen’s baptism to provide for his instruction in the Christian faith. I sent this epistle off via the USPS, pretty secure in the knowledge that it would likely end up unopened in the circular file cabinet. To my delighted astonishment, I got a phone call from the mother a few days later, and Stephen was enrolled in Confirmation studies that fall.
I’ve been a Bible and Catechism teacher for over twenty years, and I also spent six excruciating years as a junior high special ed teacher for the Los Angles public schools. In all that time, I’ve had few students I’ve enjoyed as much as the kid I called “Slick.” He came into class knowing virtually nothing about the Bible or the Christian faith, and he devoured Bible stories like they popped out of a Pez dispenser. For some mysterious reason known only to Slick and God, this kid just took to religious studies. He had a marvelous sense of joy in learning about Jesus and the characters from the Hebrew Scriptures. During one class he exclaimed, “The Bible is the most fascinating book ever written!” Now, I ask you, how many twelve or thirteen-year olds say that?
To be honest, I find most students see Confirmation class as a minor Purgatory which must be endured for the sake of parents and grandparents. Their one solace is the knowledge that once they have made their Confirmation, they will have “graduated” from church and those parental tyrants will never again demand their attendance at religious services. I’ve also noticed some parents suddenly drop off the church’s radar as soon as their youngest child makes Confirmation. I guess they feel they have paid their debt to the angry God and, in their superstitious way, have guaranteed that neither they nor their children are in danger of suffering the torments of Hell. They can now sleep in on Sunday and get ready for the Eagles to play Dallas.
Every once in a great while, however, I get a kid like Slick. Every now and then there’s that one student who feels the passion and the mystery in the Word of God.
I think of Slick and Jeremy and Mickey and Jessica and Kayleigh, and a whole bunch of other really cool young adults who have endured my catechetical teaching over the years and who have demonstrated that mystical affinity for things spiritual. Not every kid has it. Many of us don’t contemplate eternal questions until we’ve suffered the weirdness of life and tripped over the knowledge of our own mortality. But some young people just have that light inside which draws them to the things of God.
The gospel lesson in the RCL for the Sunday after Christmas (Luke 2:41-52) is the only story in the gospels which deals with Jesus as a youngster.[i] What really thrills me about this story is that Jesus is twelve years of age and would soon be making his bar mitzvah. He’s the same age as the kids who are in my Confirmation class. BY the way, the term “bar mitzvah” literally translates as “son of the commandments.” That is, should a boy make his bar mitzvah at age thirteen, he would then be considered old enough to take responsibility for living under the Law of God. As a son, he would be an heir of the faith of Moses—a truly awesome responsibility if you think about it.
So here’s this twelve-year-old who has just experienced the annual ritual of the Passover and its sacrificial duties. He’s supposed to get in the caravan with the other families and walk the seventy miles or so back to Galilee when the festival is over. Note the cool detail in verse 44 that Jesus’ parents just assumed he was okay even though they didn’t see him for an entire day. Talk about “taking a village!” We can only imagine that everyone in the caravan[ii] looked out for everyone else and for their kids, so there was no worry if you didn’t see your own boy for 24 hours. You knew he was okay.
Note, too, that Mary and Joseph are referred to as Jesus’ parents. Plural. Joseph is called Jesus’ father in verse 28. Yes, we confess that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, but for all practical purposes, Mary’s husband was Jesus’ dad. Paternity is not just a matter of DNA. It’s about taking responsibility for raising children. Joseph was taking his boy to Jerusalem and teaching him the faith. He taught him a trade. He made sure he was fed and clothed. In this sense, Joseph was every bit Jesus’ real father.
But Jesus also had a feeling that he had another Father. Something inside him—we’d say it was the Holy Spirit—drew him to the teachers of the Law. He had a hunger inside of him to hear what they were saying and to ask them questions about the mysteries of God. Luke includes this story to show his readers that Jesus wasn’t just some self-proclaimed peasant teacher. Rather, he was one who hungered for the things of God all his life, who listened to the scholars, who questioned his faith, and who amazed adults with his understanding. He was steeped in the tradition of his people, and desired to grow in wisdom.
Would that we all showed that desire to grow in the things of God! Instead of looking superstitiously at our religious observance and considering that we’re “done” learning once we’re out of Sunday school, wouldn’t it be wonderful to attack the Bible and our worship and prayer lives with the same zeal as the twelve-year-old in the Temple?
Think about it, won’t you?
[i] There are a ton of stories which were written about the boy Jesus in the first centuries of our faith. Scholars refer to them as “Infancy Narratives.” Very few of them survive because the books which contain them were condemned as heretical by church councils in the Fourth Century. This story in Luke is the only one the early church felt was authoritative.
[ii] I wonder if the caravan of Central American migrants who are seeking asylum in the US have become this sort of family? I kind of think they have.