I asked your prayers this morning in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Good morning! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! What a treat to wish you the hat trick of all greetings. I’ve often wondered if this passage from Luke’s gospel triggered the mandatory head count of every tour since the first century. If you’ve ever chaperoned children on a field trip, or taken adults on a mission trip, you know exactly what I mean. Perhaps Jesus, being left behind in Jerusalem, and his parents not discovering his absence until they walked at least 25 miles toward home is the reason why every head is accounted for before a bus pulls away. To our modern sensibilities, this event would be a dereliction of parental duties, and child protective services would be summoned. In first century Palestine though, the caravan traveling back to Nazareth would have been made up of family and friends, a community of trust in which this village looked after one another’s children.
I know this scenario very well. My two sons were literally born into the church family of St. James’s in Richmond, Virginia. Once my husband wrestled them into the building on Sundays, we hardly saw them or knew where they were. Usually a young girl had one of them on her hip and was mothering them for the morning. Our pediatrician, another member of the parish warned me, “You’re thinking that everyone is watching your boys, but in fact, everyone thinks that too. So, no one is really watching them.”
She was correct. One Sunday, my baby Casper escaped from the undercroft, where we were enjoying coffee hour. He crawled up the stairs to the narthex, out the door onto the Portico, and was headed down the steps to the sidewalk in busy street below. We had no idea it wasn’t until our Sexton James came and found me and said, “Does this belong you?”
That’s exactly what he said. Let’s just say that our hearts stopped when we learned where James had rescued him. As you can imagine, this passage has always hit a little too close to home for me. And let’s just say that I, like most parents, would want to ring Jesus’s neck for being so oblivious and hanging back in the temple, when he knew exactly where he was supposed to be – in the caravan headed home. I’m sure many of you have known that feeling when your child vanishes at the grocery store or amusement park, one of sheer panic, then great rushing relief, even a dissipating anger that accompanies your reunion. The text says that Mary and Joseph experienced great anxiety over their search for Jesus. The Greek translates this as pain.
More though, than just an interesting story about the missing years of Jesus’s childhood, this text from Luke shares with us a tinge of the heartache Mary and Joseph must have felt when they realized that their adolescent child is pulling away and individuating. It is obvious. This is the moment they became parents and God becomes both Abba and Ima, father and mother. As far as we know, this is Jesus’s first real awareness of his parentage, and it intuitively comes to him in his father’s house. I can’t help but relate to Mary and her constant undertow of wilderness. Keep in mind, she does not treasure all these things in her heart until they return safely to Nazareth and Jesus agrees to be obedient. Knowing how Jesus’s life on earth unfolds, the word that keeps coming to me about Mary’s journey with Jesus is bleakered.
Throughout December, I hosted a series of evening reflections based on traditional advent texts. These reflections were given by a scholar, a preacher, a chaplain, a monk, and a spiritual writer. Debbie Thomas, who writes for the web scene Journey with Jesus, offered a beautiful, powerful reflection on the enunciation and several of its key lines from the first chapter of Luke, one being verse 31. “And now you will conceive in your womb and bear a son.”
But she focused only on three words. You will bear. Debbie reminded us that Mary bore a great deal more than an infant. It was Simeon, after his blessing of the infant Jesus in the temple, who warned Mary about destiny’s child, “And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
Debbie began, “Mary bore the scandal of an unplanned pregnancy in a culture that shunned or stoned women in her condition. Mary bore the initial suspicion and disappointment of her fiancé, Joseph. She bore the pain of labor and delivery of her first-born child in threadbare circumstances, far from her home and ken. She wore the terror of all refugees who flee their homes and homelands to save their children. She bore the complicated guilt and relief of the survivor whose own baby lived while countless others in Hera’s realm died in his place. She wore the horror of all parents whose children go missing. And, when she finally found her 12-year-old boy discussing theology in the temple, she bore the bewilderment of having a child who was already surpassing her, a young man she could neither contain nor comprehend. One the last trials in this exhaustive list of Mary’s anguish was this – Mary, like so many mothers and fathers across history, stood under a lynching tree and bore the unspeakable pain of watching her son die by an unjust empire and complicit religion. Alongside that horror, she wore the public humiliation of having a supposedly criminal for a son.”
Grief is apparently the price of love. And I must add the deep wells of courage, patience, and tenacity required to parent are not unique to mothers. Now, knowing all of this, I’ve always been troubled and confounded by the curt, distant tone in which Jesus speaks or talks about Mary. He addresses her as “woman” in John. He doesn’t speak to her at all in Mark’s gospel, only about her. In Luke, he says the shocking, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother cannot be my disciple.”
And in Matthew, when Mary and his brothers want to speak to him, he denies them as his kin. A knife to the heart, a sword to the soul.
For those of us mere mortals, Jesus’s indifference is hard to take. How can he be so callous? He wept over Lazarus. John was his beloved disciple and Mary Magdalene; she had a piece of his heart too. But he couldn’t express a smidge of public affection for the woman who birthed him. Thank goodness he had the wherewithal to ensure Mary’s wellbeing after his death. When he presented her to John at the cross and said, “Here is your mother.”
In my humble estimation, the relationship between Mary and Jesus is defined by his divinity rather than his humanity. It’s not that he rejected her. Instead, when it came to her, he erected guard rails between the two. I think it had to be this way, or Jesus would not have made his way to the cross. His mission could not be hampered by the human guilt of devastating a human mother. He placed these guardrails around his heart just before he turned 13, because according to Jewish tradition, that’s when boys become men. It was the only way. And as you know, we often hurt those we love the most, knowing that even during the Calvary moments of our own lives, they won’t abandon us.
Friends, know that we can take comfort in the visions of Dame Julian of Norwich, the 14th century English mystic. It was on her death bed that Julian experienced visions of Christ becoming animate, flesh, and blood, speaking to her from the crucifix that stood at her bedside table. During her 11th revelation, she describes Jesus peering down from the cross to his right, where Mary would have been standing on Calvary. Julian sees a ghostly Mary, exalted and noble and glorious and pleasing to him above all creatures. When Christ says to Julian, “Wilt thou see how much I love her, that thou might rejoice with me in the love that I have in her, and she in me?”
In the love of Christ has for Mary, Julian recognizes how much Christ loves each and every human being. For he told her, from eternity, he knew he would die for love.
There is no doubt that when the divine embodies flesh, there will be growing edges. Jesus experienced these throughout his life. His relationships from Mary to John the Baptist, the disciples, the religious authorities, and the Romans. They were complicated, and/or fraught. He was not of this world, but he put on our flesh so that we would know that this is not all there is this. This is not all there is. Christ becomes hope incarnate in our moments of despair. He becomes the source of confidence when times are out of joint and we’ve lost our reason. He becomes mercy when we stray and cheat ourselves from that which is good. He becomes grace and showers us with it when we do not deserve it. He becomes love so that we might clothe ourselves with it. The way death and life, grief and joy dance nonstop with each other is guaranteed in this life of ours. But when we think we’ve reached our limit, as Mary surely did, Christ becomes the wonder that returns us to love. A love that was there since eternity.