High above Nazareth is the Basilica of Jesus the Adolescent. It is the chapel of a trade school, run by the Salesians of Don Bosco, where teenage Palestinians are trained, some still to be carpenters. They say their prayers in a church that is one of the glories of the Holy Land, and it is dedicated to a boy of their age.
The notion of the adolescence of Jesus is one on which it is extremely difficult for the Christian imagination to gain any purchase. We can picture the baby Jesus, even if some images of his infancy ("no crying he makes") are implausible. Equally, Jesus the adult is someone we can try to visualise, and preachers regularly encourage us do so. But a Jesus with spots is beyond our imaginative reach.
With the one exception of this story of the 12-year-old Jesus, the Gospels are silent about the life of Jesus between his birth and his baptism. Where the Gospels shut up, perhaps we should, too. But there is one compelling reason why we must stay a little longer with this unfamiliar notion of Jesus on the cusp of adolescence. It is that we believe — or so we say this time of the year — in the incarnation.
God in Christ became one of us. Unless we are "adoptionists", we hold that the Word took human flesh from his mother at Nazareth. God, incarnate in the child and in the adult, was incarnate, too, in one neither child nor adult; in one both child and adult; in one sometimes child and sometimes adult.
Faith in the incarnation means that we believe that there was once a gawky lad, experiencing all the startling and confusing changes that adolescence visits on us, who yet lived in abiding union with God.
Luke makes this point by placing his story of the boy Jesus in the temple within an interpretative frame. Unfortunately, our lectionary rips off one side of the frame. We must replace it.
Luke begins by saying that "the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him" (Luke 2.40). And he concludes: "Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favour" (Luke 2.52). The first statement looks back across the childhood of Jesus; the second looks ahead to his teenage years.
These verses are more than dabs of glue applied between the separate "pericopes" beloved of the form critics. Luke’s story recalls the account of the boyhood of Samuel (1 Samuel 1-3). The implication of that narrative was that a young person’s physical development, as, too, his or her maturing human relationships, may be accompanied by a matching spiritual development. Luke’s purpose is to claim that this was true of Jesus. There is a life in relationship to God appropriate to the years when the child is becoming an adult. It’s good news for Year 7s.
The adolescence of Jesus confers infinite worth on a stage of life from which, we sometimes feel, all glory has departed — just as we saw last Sunday that the foetal Christ confers that worth on all who are yet to be born. For all young people, in these least-propitious years, there is the potential of life in relation to God — no less complete, no less the "finished product", than that of the adult.
Jesus tells his parents, who have been so desperately looking for him, that he must be "about his father’s business", if that is what the notoriously cryptic Greek text means. His words leave Mary and Joseph baffled. But then not to understand what drives an adolescent — I speak with feeling — is a common-enough parental experience.
All parents must accept, sooner or later, with equanimity or resentment, that their children are no longer theirs. It is clear is that Jesus now knows himself to be commanded by a necessity that his parents cannot comprehend.
What must Mary and Joseph have felt, hearing their son speak of this necessity? A recent publication could be read as a commentary on what they went through. John Cornwell’s brilliant memoir, A Seminary Boy (Fourth Estate, 2006), is a fascinating and deeply moving account both of a child’s powerful sense of vocation and of the bewilderment of perplexed and sometimes angry parents failing to make sense of it.
Jesus teaches his teachers. They are all "amazed at his understanding". No doubt Jesus showed an insight into the things of God unusual in one of his years. Yet the Jesus we meet here is not the prodigy and freak we encounter in the apocryphal infancy gospels. The more we dwell on his precocity, the more we risk losing him. Perhaps what this 12-year-old is doing, more than exhibiting exceptional spiritual insight, is mounting a challenge to the structures of adult power. It won’t be the last time he does so.
1 Samuel 1:18-20, 26
And she said, ‘Let your servant find favour in your sight.’ Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer.
They rose early in the morning and worshipped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, ‘I have asked him of the Lord.’ And she said, ‘Oh, my lord! As you live, my lord, I am the woman who was standing here in your presence, praying to the Lord. And she said, ‘Oh, my lord! As you live, my lord, I am the woman who was standing here in your presence, praying to the Lord. And she said, ‘Oh, my lord! As you live, my lord, I am the woman who was standing here in your presence, praying to the Lord. And she said, ‘Oh, my lord! As you live, my lord, I am the woman who was standing here in your presence, praying to the Lord.
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord
The Boy Jesus in the TempleNow every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travellers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, ‘Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.’ He said to them, ‘Why were you searching 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. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favour.