Sunday reflection: Luke 2:41–52

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.

This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 2:41–52:

Each year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, and when he was twelve years old, they went up according to festival custom. After they had completed its days, as they were returning, the boy Jesus remained behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Thinking that he was in the caravan, they journeyed for a day and looked for him among their relatives and acquaintances, but not finding him, they returned to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions, and all who heard him were astounded at his understanding and his answers.

When his parents saw him, they were astonished, and his mother said to him, “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.” And he said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them. He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart. And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man.

The Christmas Mass has always had great resonance for me. Even when I was considerably less attached to my faith, I would make sure to be in church on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. As I have grown in faith, the pull of this liturgy has grown for me as well. Not only is it the culmination of Advent, it speaks to me (as does Easter) of the unfathomable will of God and the depth of His love for us. Even when we balk, even when we deliberately reject the Lord and His authority, we find ourselves becoming instruments of His will, and part of His plan for salvation in some small way. What could bring more joy and hope than that?

Pardon me, then, if I take the long way around to today’s readings. I’ve been reflecting more on the readings from the midnight Christmas Mass than on today’s passages, but they do tie together. Mostly, I’ve been reflecting on the nature of kingship and Christ’s fulfillment of a long resistance to God’s authority. The birth of Jesus shows us how God uses our own failings to serve His will, and it reminds us to this day that His love is simply inescapable.

The stiff-necked nature of the Israelites towards the Lord became clear at least as far back as the Exodus and the Golden Calf, but my particular reference comes from 1 Samuel 8. The prophet’s sons become judges on behalf of the Lord, but they are corrupt and lead the Israelites further into sin. Instead of serving the Lord as their King, the elders of Israel demand that Samuel appoint a king to rule them so that Israel may be like all other nations. As the Lord tells Samuel, the Israelites have rejected Him and have turned their back on their purpose as a nation, choosing to become just like all of the others in the world rather than lead the world toward salvation in the Lord. Despite warning the Israelites what that will mean — a nobility will seize their properties and demand the lives of their sons for battle — the hard hearts of the people persist.

Samuel then anoints Saul, “a Benjamite, from the least of the tribes of Israel,” and whose family Saul himself describes as “the humblest of all families of the tribe of Benjamin,” as king. Saul also soon (and repeatedly) rejects the Lord’s authority, and Samuel tells him that Saul’s house will soon fall; “the LORD has sought out a man after his own heart; and the LORD has appointed him to be prince over his people, because you have not kept what the LORD commanded you.” Who does the Lord choose? Someone of even more humble status — the eighth son of a farmer from Bethlehem, David.

David becomes the man after God’s own heart, but he also stumbles through lust and greed. David repents, and his youngest son Solomon succeeds him and makes Israel mighty among nations — but he also descends back into idolatry, pursuing a worldly mission of power instead of the Lord’s mission of salvation. The line of kings declines, the nation splits in two. Both eventually fall to their neighbors through the stubborn nature of the Israelites and Judeans, and their insistence on trusting regional alliances rather than the Lord.

Fast forward several centuries. The northern and southern kingdoms no longer exist as political entities; the Israelites live under the thumb of the Romans. They have a new “king,” the Roman puppet Herod the Great, who serves only himself and his own house, not the Lord despite the rebuilt temple. Herod becomes the worst possible version of Samuel’s warning in 1 Samuel 8:10-18 about the nature of kings. Shortly after Jesus’ birth, Herod will conduct mass murder of children to protect his own grip on power. The people yearn for a new king, a Messiah that will lift them back into the service of the Lord and onto the path of salvation.

The Lord hears this yearning, and fulfills that promise by perfecting the kingdom in the Incarnation. And how does this king appear? In even more lowly circumstances than Saul or David — an infant born in a barn and resting in a manger, with only the shepherds on hand to witness His arrival. But the Lord has given the Israelites a particular gift by merging the Davidic line with His divine Kingship. The Incarnation takes the sin of rejection by Israel so long ago and redeems it into an eternal Kingship, where the Lord’s authority cannot be denied for those who choose salvation.

Of course, many misunderstand the nature of the Messiah. They expect a king that will rule temporally and re-establish Israel and Judea as nation-states to dominate others. Jesus Christ comes to free all rather than fight wars and create an empire of His own on Earth. They reject Christ, but even in that they inevitably serve the will of God; through the Resurrection, Christ will defeat death itself and lead the new nation of disciples into eternal life.

Today’s Gospel about Christ in the Temple reminds me of this as well. A child of 12 would not have achieved manhood, and would be ill prepared to contend with the rabbis of the temple. And yet Jesus stays several days, exchanging thoughts with the elders of the temple that “astounded” all who were present. This parallels to some extent the same humility of the origins of the first two royal lines of Israel, but more importantly signals that the usual assumptions about authority among men do not apply to the Lord. Jesus began a challenge in the temple at 12 years of age that would come to a breaking point more than twenty years later on the cross. And even that served the will of God.

This is the point that has been resonating with me during this Advent and Christmas. The birth of Jesus shows that the failings of man are used eventually to serve the will of God. Even when we sin and reject the Lord, we inevitably come back around to marvel at His love and generosity. The Lord never fails us; he uses our brokenness to pull us back to Him. He is the true King, the true authority, and comes to us through the Davidic line as Jesus to give ourselves a chance to know Him as such and to welcome us back as His children.

It might be tough to wrap that up and put under the tree, but it’s the greatest gift we can ever receive.

The front-page image is “Christ in the Temple” by Heinrich Hofman, painted in 1871 and now displayed at the Riverside Church in New York.