Lost to the Temple

Lost to the Temple

Feast of the Holy Family. Fr Colin Carr preaches on the finding of the child Jesus in the temple.

“I don’t belong to anyone.”

This could be a manifesto of the confidently tough-minded, of those who pride themselves on their independence and resist attempts to get them into a committed relationship to a person or a party.

But it could equally be the lament of a person who feels isolated, unsupported, vulnerable to exploiters and bullies.

Most of us prefer a compromise between independence and belonging; we like to have a place, a family, an institution of which we can say, “I belong here,” while not wanting that place, family or institution to take away our freedoms.

Because we want a compromise, we will in fact often experience the thing to which we belong as ambiguous. We couldn’t be without our family, but we sometimes find it oppressive and damaging to our emotional health, whether that family is one parent and one child, a commune, or a widely extended clan.

Families tend to have patterns of acceptable behaviour, and to expect us to take part in various rituals of belonging, especially round Christmas time. And sometimes we feel the need to opt out, to express a different way of being, to bring our unacceptable partner to the party, or to spend Christmas in a Zen monastery. Of course that could just be a desire to shock, but it could be a genuine vision of the way life could be if we thought outside the box which the family has been trying to keep us in.

Like Jesus, Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel, thought outside the box. When Hannah at last conceived a child, she didn’t cling to this longed-for child, and say, “Now I have a child, I’ll make him stay with me all the time.” That might have seemed reasonable; but her response to the drama of moving from childlessness to motherhood was not to celebrate the vindication of her rights, but to acknowledge God’s gifting and to make of her child a gift to God. (1 Sam 1)

There are people who enjoy giving more than receiving, not just because it gives them a buzz or makes others beholden to them, but because they know that their life and the lives of those they love are gifts, and that giving is as important to us as breathing. In fact, it is the breath of God’s Spirit within us.

Jesus’ behaviour in Jerusalem is, by ‘normal’ family standards, bizarre. It certainly doesn’t seem to conform to the commandment to honour our parents. It is either childishly irresponsible or far too mature for a twelve-year-old. It causes massive anxiety, disruption of plans, presumably expense, and doesn’t even result in the teeniest indication of regret, let alone an honest apology.

Something important must have happened to the twelve-year-old lad in Jerusalem, particularly in the temple. Later he would cause massive disruption in the same temple, and that may have been precisely linked to the story in today’s gospel.

When he disrupted the Temple later on, he quoted the saying ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’. Luke’s Gospel lays great stress on Jesus’ life of prayer — his busyness with his Father’s affairs, his orientation towards his centre. In the Temple he must have found a house of prayer — and for the ‘doctors’ then, as for Dominicans now, prayer and questioning go hand in hand.

This was his food and drink, this was what he was about, this was more important than return journeys and common courtesies. Many people would see his answer to his parents as indicating a special relationship with the Father, but perhaps Jesus found it astonishing that anyone would want to do anything other than spend as much time as possible in the house of prayer.

This episode certainly wasn’t about Jesus’ rebellion against family life; but it indicated that there will always be an ambiguity and tension in family life if we take seriously the centrality of God in all life. Traditionally the finding in the Temple is one of the joyful mysteries; but the joy is already fraught with questioning, the sense that love will entail loss, that we cannot possess those we love.

The wisest response we can make to this ambiguity, this foreboding, is to store these things up in our heart.

Readings: Ecclus 3:2-6,12-14 | Col 3:12-21 | Lk 2:41-52

fr. Colin Carr lives in the Priory of St Michael the Archangel, Cambridge.