RAISING a child involves a particular intensity of attachment — and also an appropriate detachment; for love demands a willingness to let the child’s unique character and calling emerge. This is exemplified in the story of the child Jesus in the Temple.
The Jewish law required all male Israelites from the age of 13 to attend the Temple for the feasts of Passover, Weeks (Pentecost), and Tabernacles. The decision of his parents to bring the 12-year-old Jesus to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover is revealing. It indicates the conscientious and faithful manner in which they nurtured the child entrusted to them by God. But the fact that Jesus was moving freely in the wider group of pilgrims “illustrates very beautifully that in the holy family, freedom and obedience were combined in a healthy manner”.
The young Jesus seems to have been allowed to spend time with friends and children of his own age, meaning that it took some time for his absence to be noticed (Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The infancy narratives). The Blessed Virgin and Joseph care deeply for Jesus, but they are not over-possessive.
When Jesus is found, Mary expresses the “great anxiety” that she and Joseph felt in terms that will resonate with any parent. Jesus’s response is surprise: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” The “must” (“dei”) is the same verb that he later uses to describe the necessity of his suffering and death (cf. Mark 8.31). This necessity flows from the completeness of Jesus’s union with the will of his Father in heaven. Once his earthly parents’ anxiety has been expressed, we are told, he “went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them”.
For the second time in the infancy narrative, Luke tells us that Mary “treasures” the events in which she is involved “in her heart”. There is much for her to contemplate and ponder, as Simeon has already warned her that a sword will pierce her heart (Luke 2.35). Her son’s unexpected tarrying in the Temple foreshadows the separation that will occur as he begins his adult ministry.
Like so much of St Luke’s first two chapters, this part of the story is prefigured in the First Book of Samuel. Fulfilling her vow to the Lord, Hannah gives up her much-longed-for son to serve in the Temple. This is a “sacrifice of the heart”, which “creates a space of freedom in which Samuel can become himself” (Francesca Aran Murphy, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: 1 Samuel). Hannah’s making of a new robe for Samuel each year is a poignant detail. It shows her care for the son she had prayed for earnestly, and yet now so rarely sees.
St John Chrysostom described Hannah as “a priestess in her very being” for this willingness to offer her dearly loved son back into the service of his maker. Like Hannah, Mary has the wisdom to recognise that her son is a gift from the Father, and to offer him back in freedom. This freedom will lead on to the most agonising separation of all: when she sees her son sacrificed on Calvary.
As Benedict XVI observes, “an arc extends from this first Passover of Jesus to his last, the Passover of the Cross.” In Mary, we see Hannah’s priestly qualities intensified; for she shows us what it is to entrust completely that which we love most deeply to God, and to remain faithful, even at the darkest hour imaginable.
Luke ends his telling of the story by indicating that Jesus, like Samuel, grew “in years, and in divine and human favour”. To these attributes the Evangelist adds a growth in “wisdom”. As Benedict XVI explains, while the story of Jesus in the Temple indicates that “he is with the Father, he sees everything and everyone in the light of the Father,” it remains true that he needs to grow in wisdom. “As a human being, he does not live in some abstract omniscience, but he is rooted in a concrete history, a place and a time, in the different phases of human life, and this is what gives concrete shape to his knowledge. So it emerges clearly here that he thought and learned in human fashion.”
Once again, the divinity of Christ is shown through — and not despite — his self-emptying humility.