This is the only story, in the canonical gospels, of Jesus as a teenager – the only mention of his adolescence. Not to be too judgmental we might read today’s gospel story, or meditate on it as the fifth joyful mystery of the rosary, marveling at Jesus’ precociousness while overlooking his seemingly obvious insensitivity to his parents’ feelings. Talking about Jesus “growing up,” or growing in wisdom, age and grace as the gospel tells us today, does present problems for us Christians, especially for those of us with too static a notion of the hypostatic union.
Now there’s a phrase. Hypostatic union is that technical term used for the unique presence of both a divine and human nature in Jesus of Nazareth. We seldom hear the phrase anymore; probably because it makes Jesus sound, to our modern science-fiction-sensitive ears, more like a space alien (Klingon or Romulan perhaps?) than anything else. But then again, when we’re trying to figure out why teenagers do the things they do, maybe it’s as apt a description as any. “Ordinary” teenagers, not in possession of a hypostatic union, usually act like they’re aliens from another planet, speaking an unintelligible gibberish, clumsily awkward, inordinately sensitive and, ultimately, so mysterious they could have a decade of the Rosary named for them.
When Mary and Joseph finally find the teenage Jesus, spouting off with the priests and scholars in the Temple, Mary’s frustration comes across loud and clear when she rather sharply rebukes her son: “Boy, why’d you do this to us?” Of course, what would be most telling would be the ability to hear Mary’s tone of voice – that is, if she weren’t screaming at the top of her lungs. And you parents of teenagers might just be wondering how Mary and Joseph decided to punish Jesus when they got him back home where, the gospel tells us, he was obedient unto them.
All this comment is said with tongue and cheek, of course; but, hopefully, causing us to pause to consider Jesus’ unique identity and how he interacted with those closest to him. Some insist that, because Jesus was God, he planned the whole episode, intentionally running away from Mary and Joseph in order to teach them and everybody else that he was indeed the Son of God; staging the Temple scene so he could dramatically deliver the revelation that the Temple was his real Father’s house. But this kind of interpretation invites more than a little skepticism because it doesn’t honor the greater revelation – that of the authenticity of the Incarnation itself. If the Incarnation means that Jesus is truly human than he must be just as human as we are, especially in adolescence - when planning anything long term just doesn’t seem possible.
The beauty of today’s gospel passage is that it’s such a relief. Despite the fact that within the Holy Family both Jesus and Mary were free of original sin, their family still experienced stress and friction, even a little bitterness and, most certainly, hurt feelings. When the teenage Jesus runs away from Mary and Joseph, leaving them distressed and filled with anxiety, wasn’t he acting just like most other teenagers who know exactly how to press their parents’ buttons and cause the same reactions. And the fact that Mary “lost it” in front of the hoi polloi - all those scholars and priests in the Temple - shows her human frailty as well. And what is considered by some to be the main import of the passage - Jesus’ claiming divinity by suggesting God is his real father - is perhaps the cruelest cut of all, at least from Joseph’s perspective. By Jesus claiming he was in his “Father’s house,” he was telling all those important people in the Temple that poor old Joseph, the blue-collar carpenter standing embarrassed before them, was not his real dad.
The Holy Family is often (and unfortunately) held up as the perfect family, whose perfection our families should emulate. But if the Holy Family was indeed perfect, we may safely conclude from today’s gospel that perfection doesn’t mean there aren’t problems. In fact, it seems that being conceived without original sin (Mary), as well as possessing a divine nature (Jesus), doesn’t make you immune from emotions that all human beings are subject to; some, not so nice.
Perhaps, though, I was wrong. Maybe today’s gospel passage, as a mystery of the Rosary, is indeed joyful – showing us that Jesus is less alien than his unique hypostatic reality would make him seem, having more in common with “ordinary” teenagers than we first expected. Teenagers’ actions and words may sometimes cut a parent’s heart to the quick, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t love and respect you enormously – somewhere, way down deep, in their mysterious nature, which the more prayerful among us have long ago discovered to be joyful.