By Matthew S.C. Olver
The season of Christmas is maybe the hardest season in the Church’s year to enter into. Advent has, outside of the few hours spent in church, turned into Christmas everywhere else, and so one is left a little unsure of what to do after December 25. But what the Scriptures in our lectionary are at pains to emphasize is that there is something to do in these “in-between” days; something before and on the far side of gift returns, post-Christmas sales and cashing in the Starbucks gift card. That something is to sit with the mystery that is revealed at Christmas.
The lessons we are given in Christmastide all point toward the mystery from a different angle and in a different light, all so that we can fix our eye on at least one, little shimmer of reality that we have yet to see and thereby open new space in which the Lord may dwell.
There are different kinds of mysteries, of course. Some mysteries are the kind you can solve simply by thinking it through. The pleasure of the Father Brown stories or a Miss Marple tale is not an unsolvable quandary, but the pleasure of seeing a mystery cleverly unraveled, folded up, and neatly tucked away. “But there are other kinds of mysteries that do not conceal a truth … but whose truth is itself the mystery.” And we don’t have to look far for these kinds of mysteries: look no further than yourself. “No matter how much of your self you are able to objectify and examine, the quintessential, living part of yourself will always elude you …
Thus you do not solve the mystery, you live the mystery. And you do that not by fully knowing yourself, but by fully being yourself.” The heart of Christian worship in celebrating Holy Communion is where we begin when we try and sit with the mystery of Bethlehem. Our prayers betray us: “We most heartily thank thee for that thou dost feed us, in these holy Mysteries.” As Frederick Buechner puts it in his always-illuminating way, “To say that God is a mystery is to say that you can never nail him down. Even on Christ the nails proved ultimately ineffective.”
The data of today’s Gospel is familiar to us in the way Sunday school stories find a place in our brains to sit and gather dust, remaining in the shape and in the same colors that we first received them.
This makes it very easy to think of Jesus in the temple as something of a first-century Jewish version of Bobby Fischer, the famous chess Grandmaster: an enormous instance of childhood genius. If you remember, at age 13, Bobby Fischer won a match that became known as the Game of the Century; starting at age 14, he played in eight United States Championships, winning each by at least a point; and at 15½, he became both the youngest Grandmaster and the youngest Candidate for the World Championship up until that time. Bobby Fischer is interesting because we see a child doing something that’s not just difficult for a kid, but for anyone. We’re tempted to see Jesus here in a similar fashion: “Gosh, it’s hard to be a kid, to be God, to have parents and try to not make the rabbis looks bad.” But to read the Gospel in this way would be to miss everything that it would say to us. This isn’t meant to be read as a tabloid insight into the psychological development of the boy who would be king.
Instead, by allowing us to see a growing Jesus through the eyes of his earthly parents, we are being shown that to follow Jesus is to encounter him as he really is, which will always be full of the unexpected.
The Holy Family has come to Jerusalem for the celebration of Passover. After the celebration, his parents begin the journey back to Nazareth when they discover that he is not with them. And so, the text tells us, “after three days they found him in the temple [where Luke also begins and ends his Gospel], sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers” (2:46-47). The agony of their three-day search stands in sharp contrast “with the calm response of Jesus when they find him. Mary blurts out an accusation, perhaps tinged with that mixture of guilt and relief that most parents will recognize.
Instead of saying, as she might have, “How could I have done this to you,” she says, “How could you do this to us?”
“Your father and I have been looking for you anxiously” (v 48). Oh, we all know that phrase “your father,” don’t we. My mother described me as a spirited child and more than once do I remember a sincere promise that when “your father gets home.” But Jesus gently turns the accusation around: “Why are you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” The first words of Jesus in the Gospel not only carry profound, dramatic weight, but they are a thinly veiled proclamation of who he is: “the obedient Son of his heavenly Father.”
If you remember, part of Simeon’s prophesy at Mary’s purification was that a sword would pierce through her soul as well (2:35). And in this response from Jesus, we see that this sword has appeared much sooner than anyone could have suspected.
These first words are an inkling of a reminder that receiving the Lord’s Word is not without cost or even profound struggle. Two other times in Luke, Jesus will highlight this contrast between family ties and obedience to the Father. In one of those, a woman blurts out (unplanned, I’m sure): “Blessed is the womb that bore you!” But Jesus responds, “blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it.” What Luke is telling us is that in the course of our Lord’s ministry, Mary has moved beyond her misunderstanding to a place where the Word fully took up residence in her, where her love for her Son made way for an ever-deeper love for God our Father. And we can be assured that this was no easy task, for it was nothing less than a sword to the soul.
Luke, at the very end of chapter two, records the words we know so well: “his mother kept all these things in her heart” (2:51). And, in fact, this is the second time Luke tells us that Mary is consciously looking in her heart and wrestling with what she has seen and heard. The first time is after the shepherds leave the manger in Bethlehem. Luke tells us then that “Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (2:19). This pondering is not a sentimental nostalgia, a recollection of sepia-toned memories. What Luke is telling us is that Mary’s discipleship is not a figment, not a mirage. Her struggle was real and palpable; as real as a knife draws blood. Her attempt to try and “hit upon the meaning of all she had witnessed herself and heard about from the shepherds,” and now take in what she had witnessed in the temple, were exactly what they would be for you and me: work.
This is one of the reasons why Mary’s modeling to us Christian discipleship must always take seriously the Scripture’s witness about this movement of discipleship. To put it simply, “Mary’s pondering and treasuring of all these things did not result in an immediate understanding. Grace, like wine, takes time to ferment.
It can be so hard in this season not simply to hear the stories as a string of familiar verbs, participles, and a few interesting proper nouns. But I think that part of who Luke has in mind as he writes his Gospel are “people who may have some idea of Jesus but find he is more elusive that they had imagined.” Luke tells a story near the end of his Gospel that reverberates with much of what makes today’s Gospel so arresting. There is a couple, making their way back to Jerusalem, who discover the Jesus they thought they had lost in the place where they least expected him: in the breaking of bread.
The ordinary was suddenly bound up in mystery. Both of the Jerusalem-bound couples find something unexpected, something they could have never imagined. In the words of N.T. Wright, “Every time we relax and think we’ve really understood him, [Jesus] will be up ahead, or perhaps staying behind while we go on without thinking. …We must never assume that he is accompanying us as we go off on our own business. But if and when we sense the lack of his presence, we must be prepared to hunt for him, to search for him. Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God comes by violence (Matt. 11:12), by which he means it comes only through the deadliest of struggles. And we must expect too, that when we do meet him again, he will not say or do what we expect.” T.S. Eliot gets the tone just right at the end of The Four Quartets:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
The Rev. Dr. Matthew S.C. Olver is assistant professor of liturgics and pastoral theology at Nashotah House.