Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
January 3, 2016
Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a
One of the several unique aspects of the Gospel according to Saint Luke is its two brief vignettes concerning Jesus’ so-called hidden years of childhood. Saint Luke describes Jesus’ naming and circumcision at the Jerusalem Temple on the eighth day following his birth, along with Mary’s purification in a mikvah, a ritual pool located at the Temple’s entrance-steps. Whenever a fully observant Jew comes into direct contact with the primordial forces of life and death, she or he must begin anew by becoming “ritually pure,” “fit for the worship of God” who is the Lord of life and death. Having momentarily touched the sacred during childbirth, Mary undergoes a ritual bath to re-enter the profane world and to take up the mundane, the ordinary, and the daily once again. The Conservative synagogue just down the road here on Washington Street has a mikvah for fully observant Jews in our area.
We have the second Lucan moment in Jesus’ early life in this morning’s Gospel. Jesus, St. Luke tells us, is now twelve-years-old, on the cusp of official Jewish manhood beginning at age thirteen, when a boy would leave the almost exclusive company of his mother and his female relatives to begin his tutelage by the men of his family, clan, and tribe. This tradition is preserved to this very day in the Talmudic injunction to learn Torah from the ages of five through ten; Talmud beginning at age eleven; observe Jewish law by becoming a “son of the commandments,” a “bar mitzvah” at age thirteen; and embrace the marriage canopy, the “hupah,” at age eighteen. And throughout these years, it was a father’s duty to give his son a means of livelihood, and the Gospels tell us that Joseph reared Jesus to become a “tekton,” an “artisan.” So, as we hear over and again in all of the Gospels, Jesus and his family were devout and highly-observant Jews throughout Jesus’ short life.
In this morning’s Gospel, we find the holy family on their return trip to Nazareth after observing another “mitzvah” or “commandment” of the Torah: to celebrate the “Pesach” or “Passover” as a “pilgrimage festival,” so designated because it was one of three holy days each year when observant Jews were required, if possible, to keep the feast at the Temple in Jerusalem. The pilgrimage to Jerusalem from Nazareth was a three to four-day journey, punctuated by the singing of the “psalms of ascent” from the Book of Psalms, the hymnal of the Jerusalem Temple liturgy. Because Jews, like many in the Middle East to this very day, observed a strict public separation of the sexes, the women and children would have traveled together behind the men of Nazareth. It’s likely, then, that Mary thought that Jesus was with the men, while Joseph probably presumed that this child on the cusp of manhood was still with the women. It took them a day’s journey before discovering that he was with neither group at nightfall. Like many on the brink of adolescence, Jesus had apparently made an independent decision about where he would be: this literate and precocious young man elected to remain with the scribes and Torah scholars in the Temple. And, as we know from the Gospels, this was neither the first nor the last time that Jesus would cause his mother and other of his kin anger, confusion, and great consternation. Just as he does over and again in his narrative of Jesus’ nativity, Saint Luke once more foreshadows the end of Jesus’ story at its beginning.
But Saint Luke has a larger agenda in this morning’s Gospel, one that is extremely relevant to us during this Christmas season in our skeptical, post-modern world. Saint Luke wants his community to understand that, regardless of any qualms and suspicions about Jesus’ ambiguous paternity, Jesus is a “son of God” and a teacher of the teachers of Israel. When Jesus’ desperate parents finally find him, “after three days”—a clear foreshadowing of the resurrection—“sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions…all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.” In other words, Jesus is already a budding Torah scholar who, even before his formal adulthood, is able to engage in a lively discussion of the oral and written Torah with the sages. But beyond that remarkable gift, Saint Luke is also telling us that Jesus is more than a precocious intellect and a devout young Jew: He is God’s “anointed one,” God’s “Messiah.” So, when Jesus’ forlorn and weary parents finally locate him at the Temple, Jesus asks his frantic and scolding mother Mary, in the presence of his father Joseph, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” This is either a definitive statement of his unique relationship to God, or a snarky teenager giving his parents “lip”!
For centuries, the Church has chosen the former to interpret Jesus’ rhetorical question to his parents. It has been used as a vital proof-text for Jesus’ own awareness and assertion of his divinity. And this may well be the case. As Christians, we certainly profess that Jesus of Nazareth was both fully human and entirely at one with God by his very nature. And yet, such an emphasis threatens to overshadow the real thrust of this statement.
This narrative about Jesus’ early adolescence from the Gospel according to Saint Luke is only “gospel,” “good news,” for us today if it means that we, like Jesus, also have the potential to become “children of God” by grace, dwelling now—and for all eternity—in our “Father’s house.” And we do receive that grace by virtue of holy Baptism. When we “are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever” (BCP) in that sacrament of full initiation into the life of the Church, we are given all we ever need to make our pilgrim journey to a dwelling place in the “Father’s house”—now, through the sacramental and liturgical life of the Church, “the household of God,” and later, in “the life of the world to come.” Like Jesus, this election may place us at odds sometimes even with our nearest and dearest, but real grace is never cheap. Jesus taught us, his disciples, to take up our own cross and to follow him; to call on God as “Abba,” “Father” in our prayer. And this vocation to recapitulate the life of Christ is a gift and a responsibility, both a privilege and a summons to a life in Christ—in the Church and in the world.
We, like the holy family in this morning’s Gospel, are all on a journey to and from the “Father’s House.” We too have the word and the worship of God to guide us on our pilgrim way through our ordinary, daily life in the corrupted currents of this world. If we are faithful to that word and worship, we also have the assurance that, like Jesus, we will by the grace of God “increase in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” Like Mary, Jesus’ holy mother, who “treasured all these things in her heart” even when she did not fully understand them, we must follow Jesus to the Cross and to the Empty Tomb “three days” later, confident that our pilgrim road leads to eternal life in the “Father’s house.” Saint John Paul’s last words to those gathered at his bedside just before his death were, “Let me go to the Father’s house.” And for every Christian, those words are a command and a plea, both a mission and a constant prayer. So let us who are, through the grace of Holy Baptism, God’s daughters and sons by adoption, be on our way—guided always by word and sacrament—as a pilgrim “people of God” to our “Father’s house.” For, as Jesus reminds us in Saint John’s Gospel, “In my Father’s house, there are many dwelling places.”