Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.
“Families Fully Alive” Conference
Feb. 9, 2018
Homily on Luke 2:41-52
The Gospel passage we’ve just heard is unique to St. Luke. He alone of the four evangelists writes about the boyhood of Jesus. And these 12 verses are the full account. It’s a rich text for us to consider today and for every family to hold dear.
Luke moves from the infancy of Jesus to the many chapters of his adult messianic mission by describing an event in the life of the Holy Family who were on their annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Feast of Passover.
Pilgrimage was very important for faithful Jewish families. Three times a year as the Law commanded, they would journey to Jerusalem for important feasts: Passover, commemorating their deliverance from death and the slavery of Egypt; Shavuot, also known as Pentecost or the feast of Weeks, marking the Covenant of Sinai; and Sukkot, also known as the feast of Booths or Tabernacles, celebrating God’s provision for the Hebrews in the desert wilderness.
Jewish families from outlying areas traveled long distances under difficult circumstances to fulfill their obligations. They journeyed in groups for safety and companionship. The trip from Nazareth to Jerusalem was nearly 100 miles — that’s about five days walking at a good pace and, in total, 30 days on foot every year for religious observance.
So, it was customary for the family of Jesus to celebrate the seven-day festival of Passover among thousands of other Jewish families gathered in Jerusalem for the same purpose. Luke tells us that on one such occasion, when Jesus was 12 years old, his parents departed with the others in their caravan after the conclusion of the feast. At the close of a day’s journey toward home, when the boy did not join them for supper, they grew concerned. They “looked for him among their relatives and acquaintances, but not finding him, they returned to Jerusalem to look for him” (Lk 2:45).
We should pause for a moment right there. And let’s try to understand the anxiety of Mary and Joseph and the fears they must have felt as they hurried along the uphill trek back to Jerusalem. The Son of God had been entrusted to their care, and now they had lost him. They had no idea of his whereabouts.
It was three full days before they found him. For a mother with a lost child, that’s an eternity. And when they did find him, he was seated in the Temple among scholars of God’s Word who were amazed at his understanding and answers. His parents were taken aback to find him there. The dialogue which followed between Mary and Jesus discloses a great mystery worthy of our prayerful reflection.
His mother said to him, “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking 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?’ But they did not understand what he said to them” (Lk 2: 48-49).
Hearing this for the first time, we might easily feel that Jesus sounds indifferent to their anxiety and suffering. But that’s not the case.
At the age of 12, Jesus was no longer a mere boy. He was a year away from manhood in the eyes of Jewish Law, and his answers to questions from the Temple scholars showed his fitness for the challenges of adult life. But more than mastery of the Law, Jesus showed his fidelity to an even greater mission — the work given him by his Heavenly Father — to redeem a fallen world and to reconcile us to the Father. It was for that reason, that he remained behind in the Temple, so that he could “be in his Father’s house” and about his Father’s work.
As rough as his words may have sounded to Mary and Joseph, and may sound today to us, he was not being disrespectful — candid, yes, truthful, yes; but not disrespectful. The proof is that he submitted himself to their rightful authority and went home. But even for the young Jesus, obedience to God the Father was his overriding mission, and therein lies a most important lesson for us.
The virtue of obedience is too often disdained in our times because it’s seen as an enemy of freedom. But obedience to lawful and just authority does not contradict freedom, it assures it. All through the Bible, God calls his people to obey his commandments and thereby to receive the blessings of life to the full. The commandments are not imposed as a burden but given as means to a life well-lived. We’re all familiar with the injunction, “Listen and obey.” Parents speak it, and children hear it. It follows the pattern God Himself has used with the children he loves throughout the ages.
Obedience is the path to freedom, happiness, and holiness. St. Paul writes to the Galatians (cf. 5: 1), that it was for freedom that Jesus set us free, and he has done so — how? — by his obedience. It’s only in this true freedom that we can love God above all things; love our neighbor as our self; and love one another, even our enemies, as Jesus loves us.
Mindful of this, let’s look again at the verse, “But they [Mary and Joseph] did not understand what he said to them” (Lk 2:50).
The Virgin Mary is, in the words of the Archangel Gabriel, “full of grace.” She’s the first disciple, the exemplar of holy faith, and the chosen instrument in whom the Eternal Word was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born into the world. As we acknowledge her greatness and depend upon her maternal care, we need to recognize that she lived her faith dynamically. She was not on autopilot. As our model of receptivity, she was constantly available to God’s will for her. The “Yes” she spoke to Gabriel, she spoke each day in the events of her life.
The unique grace of her Immaculate Conception does not mean that she was immune from the challenges of life. She lived a real human life attentive to God, every step of the way. Her freedom from sin does not disconnect her from our common humanity; it makes her an even more real and admirable model for us in our quest for holiness.
Joseph was my father’s name, and it’s my own my middle name. So St. Joseph has a special place in my heart. I’ve always marveled that Scripture records none of Joseph’s words, yet it reveals his monumental testimony of faith. St. Matthew tells us that on four occasions Joseph received a word from an angel in a dream, and each time Joseph arose and obeyed.
The first was when Joseph learned that Mary, his betrothed spouse, was pregnant. As a righteous man, what was he to do? In a dream the angel said, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:20-21). Joseph got up and did as he was commanded.
A second time, after the visit of the Magi, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt; and remain there till I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him” (Mt 2:13). Again, Joseph rose in the night and did as he had been told.
After Herod died, an angel of the Lord came once again in a dream to tell Joseph that it was safe to return to Israel. He did so — but warned yet again in a dream, Joseph departed Judea with his family and settled in Nazareth of Galilee (cf. Mt 2:20-23).
St. Joseph is extraordinary. He was a faithful son of Abraham — a just man of quiet and humble faith in action. He and Mary trusted God with all their hearts. Their lack of understanding at the words Jesus spoke to them in the Temple caused them to lean on God all the more. For Mary, it was yet another occasion to “keep all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Lk 2:19).
Luke concludes this great lesson on obedience, with these words. Jesus “went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart” (Lk 2:51). Jesus, true God and true man, lived in truth. As a son in a human family, he honored and obeyed his parents, and Luke says, “Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man” (Lk 2:52). He grew physically and matured through human experience while quietly waiting for the sign his Heavenly Father would give for the start of his path to the Cross.
We’d all do well to keep and ponder all these words in our hearts. May they be a blessing to you and your families, and to all of us who seek heaven as a home.
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, bless us now and at the hour of our death. Amen.