During this time of the year when we celebrate Christmas, one of the benefits is that we get to see our relatives again. Well, for most of us it’s a benefit. Family is important, even though we live in a time when we fear the erosion of families, and a lack of role models in the media. Well, on Television the importance of families plays out in almost every show, whether we’re talking about the family of Home Improvement or on classic TV like All in the Family, or the Dick Van Dyke Show, or Beverly Hillbillies, or Petticoat Junction. As a guilty pleasure on occasion, I’ll even watch Married with Children: there’s a security in watching a show and saying: “My family is better than that.”
Family is important to us in today’s Gospel reading. The scene is Jerusalem: Joseph, Mary and Jesus have traveled many days on a hard journey on foot to attend that feast of Passover. People traveled in caravans at that time for security reasons: the pilgrimage route passed through some rough territory and there’s safety in numbers. Joseph and Mary leave Jerusalem with their caravan, assuming quite reasonably that their son is somewhere around: to miss the departure is a horrible risk for a child trying to catch up with the group. So when the group reached their encampment for the evening and Jesus isn’t around is a 911 kind of danger. Joseph and Mary probably have to catch another group headed up the mountain to return to Jerusalem, and that probably takes some time in the evening. Then there is the anxious day going back up the mountain, keeping pace with the group even though they might have wanted to travel faster. When they return to Jerusalem they face a long day of searching a crowded city that is a warren of streets and alleys and passageways. So now you have an idea of the frame of mind of Joseph and Mary when they find Jesus in the Temple.
Jesus is 12 years old: he’s not an adult by most means, but he has just reached the age where today he would receive his Bar Mitzvah. For those of you unfamiliar with that tradition, in order to have a Saturday synagogue service, you need ten adult males to make up a quorum (sorry ladies), and at the age or 12 or 13 young men receive their Bar Mitzvah, which means that they count toward the number needed to have service and that they are eligible to read the lesson from the Torah scroll. He is participating in a theological debate at the Temple which is probably on the level of a modern seminary seminar, which is highly unusual for someone his age. Mary comes up with a typical parent line: Where have you been? Do you know what your father and I have gone through the past couple of days? Scripture doesn’t say whether Mary was going to ground him, but that would make some sense considering what has happened here.
Jesus gives her an answer that makes sense to us and that may not have made sense to his family. “Do you not know that I had to be about my Father’s business?” This points out a conflict: in that culture family was everything and family came first, and Jesus is claiming a larger responsibility. Only after you discharged your obligation to your family could you do anything else, including work for the larger community. And if you wanted to do something like that, you had to ask permission from your father first to leave and if he said no, then that was it. Jesus is going out on a limb, and he gets away with it.
Now what comes next is a little confusing when you look at it. Jesus is just declared independence from his family successfully, and if you or I were writing the story we might have Jesus beginning his public ministry in Jerusalem at this point. It would make sense for this talented young man who has proven that he can take an adult role on the highest level to take his place. But he goes home with his parents and does what they ask of him. The next time we hear from him is when he’s thirty years old, and it’s in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. The next time in the Gospel of Luke Jesus appears in Jerusalem is Holy Week. Jesus doesn’t become the superstar he unveils at this time right away; he goes back to the country and an ordinary person again.
What can we get from this example of the Holy Family? Look at the scope Jesus uses for family when he speaks to his mother: for him the family is going about His Father’s will, in other words, his family has grown to include the world. For him family is not a fenced in area to sit behind, or a castle to live in. Look at the way Jesus exercises his rights: he has established himself as an adult and set himself up as an autonomous person, but he freely accepts the responsibilities that his nuclear family impose on him. It’s not either serve all creation or serve his immediate family, it’s not a yes or no question, it’s yes to both. It’s yes to me, it’s yes to my mission, it’s yes to immediate family’s needs and it’s yes to the needs of all creation. All together, all balanced. For us it’s a challenge to live with one another caring for one another out of free commitment, and to see our responsibility as families to reach out to all the families of the world. That’s true whether we’re talking about our birth families or our families of choice.
It’s not an easy commitment to make, but that’s one reason we gather into this family we call the Body Christ, and share these sacraments together. Like all families are fed from their tables, we too are fed at this family table. And like other families, our nourishment here, whether it’s from what we eat and drink or the stories we tell or what we share in other ways, is what keeps us going as we prepare for that great family feast that is the kingdom of God in its fullness.