Preaching Luke 2:41-52 Part 3
A former student once told me that her little daughter, the week after Christmas, asked her mother to stop the car when they were driving past the church they attended. The child wanted to go into the church and see how the baby Jesus was doing. She remembered that Jesus had been born there a few days ago, and she wanted to make sure he was okay. The mother tried to explain it was a pageant that the child had seen, and that the baby Jesus by now had been put away in the church storage room until next year. This alarmed the child. She wondered who would feed the baby Jesus in the storage room. The mother, realizing that adult explanations would never break through, then said that some of the shepherds had decided to stay behind and they would bring in food for Mary and Joseph to feed to Jesus. This made excellent sense to the child, who was then willing to ride on knowing that baby Jesus was going to be taken care of.
The story illustrates a phenomenon that experts in cognitive development and faith development have documented. Young children live in a world of "concrete operations." They have not yet developed the conceptual capacities to understand the difference between a pageant and real life, between a symbol and an idea. As far as the little girl was concerned, baby Jesus had literally been born in that church. She had seen it with her own eyes, and no amount of adult explanation was going to alter the reality of that simple fact.
Before we dismiss the child's perception as naïve and immature, we need to consider the power of her conviction. The child's simplicity leads her to raise a question that we adults, with all of our sophisticated conceptual abilities, may have ignored: who will feed the baby Jesus? The bluntness of the girl's concern compels us to come to terms with the ethical implications of Christ's birth. What Isaiah prophesied becomes true: "A little child shall lead them" (Is 11:6).
I believe the story reveals why we adults love to watch the children in church during Christmas: the children put us back in touch with a world of wonder, and they reawaken perceptual capacities that have been buried by the burden of our adult lives.
Nevertheless, the child's perception alone is not enough. Who will feed the baby Jesus? Any adequate response demands adult reasoning and action. We will have to consider how Christ is to be found among the hungry children of the world. We will have to analyze the systems of food production and delivery. We will have to formulate economic and political strategies that make sure the children receive the nutrition and care that are essential to growing up healthy and strong.
Did the little girl keep alive her beautiful and compassionate faith while developing her powers of adult reasoning and action? I do not know. The story was told me years ago. By now she must be an adult. I hope she grew up following the pattern of Jesus in today's lesson. Luke is clear that Jesus himself went through a process of maturation: "And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in divine and human favor."
I recall when I was a child my father used to measure my two brothers and me every few months. He would mark our name, height and the date of the measurement on a piece of white painted woodwork between the kitchen and the pantry. I used to look at those marks and marvel at how much I had grown. I would someimes bend my knees to lower my head to a mark made one or two years earlier. Could it really be that I once was that short! Then I would stand up straight, and then on my tip toes trying to imagine where I might be a year into the future.
I wonder how Mary and Joseph marked Jesus' growth. Like most parents, they probably observed when his sleeves had become too short. But what about his spiritual growth? They evidently gave careful attention to his learning the customs and rituals of their tradition. We read in the gospel today, "Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover" (Luke 2:41). That annual celebration must have made a powerful impression upon Jesus as a child, probably gripping his mind with the same power as the Christmas pageant gripped the little girl's. Since Jesus was fully human he must have progressed through the same early modes of cognition as the little girl. He might very well have asked some naïve, childish question about what the Hebrew slaves did with their chains or how many chariots were lost in the sea. As the years progressed, Jesus moved beyond his literalism toward the deeper meanings of the tradition. Luke says Jesus amazed the temple authorities when he was twelve, an age when children begin to claim the powers of adult reasoning. Although the story of Jesus as a twelve-year-old sage in the temple is shaped by the piety of the early church, it is possible that the story captures a memory of something that really happened.
When Christ calls "Follow me," he calls us to grow up: to become adult believers who have hearts simple enough to ask, "Who will feed the baby Jesus?" who have minds keen enough to figure out what it will take, and who have wills strong enough to do it.