One thing I never get tired of wondering about is the dual nature of Christ, as true God and true man. It's good to know that it's a mystery, which doesn't mean that it's vague and weird idea that won't stand up to reason -- but that it's so profoundly meaningful that you won't get to the end of understanding it, ever.
The author April Armstrong recorded that she actually asked the child Jesus whether, when he was little, he actually knew he was God. And the answer was, "Yes . . . and no!" Which makes more sense than anything else I've heard; and it might shed some light on one of the more baffling passages of the Gospel: the finding in the Temple.
We can all agree that Mary and Joseph were the best parents ever. They, more than any other parents or married couple, had their priorities entirely in order. And so losing their Son can't have been a matter of carelessness. Maybe they trusted some flaky uncle who said, "Sure, he's with me," or maybe they saw another boy wearing an identical outfit and thought he was right behind them. Losing him is not the weird part.
The weird part happens when they finally find him, and ask, understandably, "What were you thinking?" And he answers, "Why were you looking for me? Didn't you know I'd be at my Father's house?" or " . . . busy with my Father's affairs?" Essentially, "No, what were you thinking?"
Of course we know that Jesus wasn't being rude, or mean, or thoughtless, or sarcastic. I suppose the only way we can read this answer is that he was genuinely puzzled. To him, it was perfectly obvious that he was where he needed to be, doing what he needed to be doing. He just let his parents go without him, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. He was thinking, I suppose, with the mind of someone who wasn't limited by the confusions, the false priorities of original sin; and so it -- can we say this? -- it didn't occur to him that he'd be causing trouble by not going home with his folks. Remember, he was a real 12-year-old boy, who really, somehow, had to learn things -- things like, when he was a toddler, how to walk, how to feed himself, how to put on his own shoes; and things, when he was a teenager, like how to put his parents' concerns first, even if there were other, more eternally important matters to deal with. Remember, it says that he was "learning" from the elders at the Temple.
And afterwards, apparently also having learned (like any boy his age) from the experience of his parents' panic and anxiety, he "went home with them and lived under their authority."
But he was God. Omniscient. I don't get it. This question lives in a place where "Yes . . . and no!" is about as clear as it's going to get. But there is something to be gained by puzzling over it, something we can learn by remembering the first reading that goes along with this Gospel reading: the dedication of Samuel.
Samuel's mother begs and begs God for a child -- and promises that she will dedicate him to the Lord if she has a son. She fulfills this promise: as soon as he is weaned, she gives him over to serve at the Temple. Modern parents look at this reading and can't help feeling aghast: she wanted a son so badly, and she just goes ahead and gives him up? I have no idea what a life in the Temple entailed, and whether children were allowed to visit their parents, or what. But clearly this was no casual sacrifice: Samuel, at a very young age, left his parents, and the priests took over authority of him.
And he and his mother accept that he will be "at his father's house," as if it were the most natural thing in the world to wean a kid and hand him over so that he could serve God.
So I think that Jesus' "Yes . . . and no!" -- when he first admonished his parents for not understanding him, but then submitted to their authority -- this is the real lesson of the readings from last Sunday. It reminds parents that our role is to place our children with God -- that where they belong is in their Father's house. It reminds us that God gives us children so that we can give them back to him, like Samuel's mother did; and it reminds us that, if they are where they ought to be, we will find them, at a certain point, pulling away from us and seeking God on their own, like Jesus did.
But it also reminds us as individuals that seeking the Father, doing the right thing, being where we ought to be -- this is no excuse for trampling on the hearts of people who love us and who have reasonable demands on our respect. Pursuing spiritual truths is no excuse for forgetting our obligations to each other.
The boy Jesus was not sinning by spending time in the temple! He couldn't have been. And yet he chose to submit to the authority of his earthly parents. Why? Maybe because he felt sorry for them. Maybe because he wanted to set an example of obedience. Maybe because, even though he was God, He was also a boy, and somehow needed to be with His parents just as much as He somehow needed food and drink and shelter and comfort and guidance, just like any boy. Somehow.
It's a mystery how the Man-God struck that balance, but it's much clearer for us. The demands of the spiritual life are very real -- but so are the mundane demands of human relationships. We have the obligation to give over the things which keep us from God, even if it means making huge sacrifices; but we have the equally serious obligation to attend to the needs of people around us. We can't say, "I don't have time to pray, because I'm too busy taking care of my family!" But neither can we grimace at a baby who suddenly shouts, "Dadadadada!" at the elevation at Mass.
It's a mystery how Jesus, true God and true man, found the balance between the infinite knowledge he held and the human demands he submitted to. For us, as creatures with a mortal body but an immortal soul, our balancing act is no mystery -- but it's no cakewalk, either. Let's start the new year by taking a hard look at this balance in our lives. Do we feel tension? We should!