The Holy Family and the Doctors

The finding in the Temple offers an image of love — love of God and his word, and love of the Holy Family for each other.

Dirck van Baburen, “Christ Among the Doctors,” 1622
Dirck van Baburen, “Christ Among the Doctors,” 1622 (photo: Public Domain)

The Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph usually falls in the United States on the Sunday between Christmas and Jan. 1, the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God — a reminder that the following of Christ exacts a price. 

Tradition holds that Jesus died at the age of 33. The Gospels present him as carrying on his active ministry is Israel for three years. 

The other 30 years are called the “Hidden Life,” because we don’t have many details about them. The Gospels themselves are relatively sparse about Jesus’ early years. Mark contains no Infancy Narrative at all: we launch straight into John the Baptist and then Jesus. John speaks of Jesus as the Son of God, the “Word,” from all eternity and while he puts great stress on the reality of Jesus’ Incarnation (see, e.g., John 19:34-37). 

Matthew and Luke provide us with select details from Jesus’ Infancy and early years. The former speaks of the Roman census that brought the Holy Family to Bethlehem, the Nativity, the adoration of the Magi, the flight into Egypt, and the return to Nazareth. The latter speaks of the parallel births of John the Baptist and Jesus, Jesus’ Presentation, and the Finding in the Temple, after which “he went down with them to Nazareth and was obedient to them. … And Jesus grew in wisdom and age and grace before God and man” (2:51-52) until, in Chapter 3, John the Baptist begins preaching.

It is that final Lukan episode, the Finding in the Temple, which is the subject of today’s Gospel.

Jesus is 12. As a Jewish boy of first-century Israel, he should have been taking part in religious school (beth hasefer) for about seven years, which would have given him a foundational knowledge of Sacred Scripture. As a Jewish boy of Israel when the Temple still existed (the Romans destroyed it during the Jewish Uprising of AD 70), he would have journeyed with his family to Jerusalem on pilgrimage on certain major feasts, most especially Passover. Because these were communal celebrations of the Jeshurun (the people of Israel), people traveled together, even as whole communities. So, Jesus going with his Family and extended relations/community for Passover in the Holy City, an approximately 100-mile trek from Nazareth, would have been “according to festival custom.” 

Having kept the festival, it was time to go home. According to “custom,” his parents would have expected him to be somewhere in the “caravan.” We might think that a big assumption, but remember three things: this is not an age of “helicopter parenting,” age 12 in the first century was on the verge of maturity, including religious responsibility, and this society relied on extended family and community. Mary and Joseph “looked for him among their relatives and acquaintances” (v. 44). The fact that it took “a day” suggests just how extended that kinship network might have been. 

Not finding Jesus, “they went back to Jerusalem” and search for him for “three days” (vv. 45-46). Their loss of Christ finds parallels elsewhere, harkening back to Jonah’s “three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish” (1:17) and heralding Jesus’s three days in the Tomb, from his Crucifixion to his Resurrection. We can just imagine what went through Mary’s and Joseph’s minds and hearts.

But they find him in the place that would have made the most sense for him: “in my Father’s house” (v. 49).

Let’s imagine Jesus, a religious young man in the Holy City and in the center of Judaism, the Temple. Learned scholars are discussing and debating the fine points of Scripture all around. Would we not have expected this to attract Jesus?

Today’s Gospel is depicted in Dirck Van Baburen’s 1622 painting, “Christ Among the Doctors,” which hangs today in the National Gallery of Norway. 

I chose this work because I think it best aligns with the Gospel text — that he was “sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions” (v. 46). That is exactly what is happening in this group. Jesus is right in the middle. We Christians would expect that, given who he is. But the Gospels tell us that the teachers themselves “were astounded at his understanding and his answers” (v. 47), indicating they themselves found him a precocious lad. Any good teacher wants to encourage such a student, and since young people often bring fresh and novel perspectives to things, they undoubtedly must have found him intriguing. After all, “kids say the darndest things” (or ex ore infantium).

The seven people in Van Baburen’s painting clearly act that way. It’s a lively discussion. Three scholars are clearly thinking about something they’ve heard. Two in the middle of the right are in heated debate. The two in the foreground are clearly engaged, looking up some point in their open books. The forward extended right foot of the one on the right brings us into the picture. Even Jesus’ chronological peer, standing over him on the right and holding a book, is listening (and maybe a bit envious?)

What I particularly find attractive about Van Baburen’s depiction is Jesus’s pose: He’s engaged in the discussion, “listening to them and asking them questions.” Many renditions of this scene by other artists turn Jesus into a pre-teen teacher, lecturing the others (see, e.g., Ingres’ “Christ Among the Doctors”). While Jewish debate of Scripture was open, this was still a traditional society where age and status mattered. Van Baburen’s repartee strikes me as a possibly more realistic image of what we might have seen.

In the distance, right behind Jesus, stand Mary and Joseph. We can imagine that this is the moment they’ve stumbled upon their missing Boy and are probably overcome by a welter of conflicting emotions: joy (we found him!), amazement (what is he doing there?), pride (whatever he is, he seems to be taken seriously), relief (it’s over!). Mary smiles broadly. 

Van Baburen was influenced by Caravaggio and the latter’s specific Baroque style emanates from this painting, particularly in terms of the strong and massive masculine features of the two scholars in the foreground and the use of light and especially of darkness in the work. Against the strongly defined masculine characteristics of the teachers, Jesus is boyish (including the wavy curled hair). Note, however, the prominence of hands in this painting, Jesus’ being as fully defined as those of the teachers. Mary and Joseph, from a perspective viewpoint, are reduced to two-dimensional images. 

Jesus’ response, “Did you not know I must be in my Father’s house?” is in some sense incomprehensible to Mary and Joseph, though we might reflect on the observation made by the Polish-Jewish Catholic writer, Roman Brandstaetter, that Jesus did not so much live alongside them as they did alongside him. Certainly, with Mary’s Annunciation and Joseph’s dreams, both recognized theirs was a unique family. Jesus was clearly not going to be “just like” all other Jewish boys his age. But, just as parents who do not always understand a child who is talented in some special way but love even what they don’t understand, Mary again “treasured these things in her heart” (v. 51; see also vv. 19 and 33-35). Perhaps they were even greater treasures because they were mysteries.

With this ends Luke’s account of the “Hidden Years.” Our liturgical year will bounce us back to Luke’s Christmas adoration of the shepherds next Saturday as we mark the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, because the Gospel notes it was the day of Jesus’ circumcision. Next Sunday, the Solemnity of the Epiphany, we detour through Matthew for the adoration of the Magi. But the image we should take away from the encounter with the doctors is love: love of God and his word, love of parents and child for each other, even amidst the mysteries of God’s designs.

[The author acknowledges his indebtedness to Roman Brandstaetter’s treatment of this episode in his Jezus z Nazarethu (Jesus of Nazareth)].