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An Unsentimental Family

By Neil Dhingra

A recent study of children’s Bibles and Bible storybooks published in the United States suggests a “potential threat” in Luke’s account of Jesus’ being lost in the Temple (2:41-52) and asking his anxious mother, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” The threat of Jesus appearing disobedient is conveniently neutralized by some authors imagining that Jesus responded gently or calmly or perhaps after he “put his arm around his mother.” However, the real shadow that hangs over Luke’s account — of Simeon’s having just told Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel … and a sword will pierce your own soul too” (2.34-5) — is not so easily dispelled.

The feast of the Holy Family is a reminder of what faith really means. It is neither sentimental nor easy nor even stable, whatever our storybook ideas may be.

As Caleb T. Friedeman has written,[1] the first two chapters of Luke introduce us to individuals who, filled with the Holy Spirit, prophetically speak the truth about Jesus’ divine identity. However, it is unlikely that they fully grasp the deeper meaning of which they speak—that Simeon understands that the sword, an image taken from Ezekiel (14:17), will specifically divide those who recognize Jesus as divine Lord from those who cannot. Even Mary and Joseph, as Jesus turns 12 and can finally speak for himself, find themselves no less than astonished (2:8) by their son and do not “understand what he had said to them” (2:50). Mary is left treasuring all these mysterious things (2:51).

She presumably treasures all these things for a very long time. Throughout Jesus’ earthly ministry, nobody seems to grasp who he really is or the deeper meaning of which they occasionally speak. Even when the disciples speak the right words, they still miss the deeper meaning. “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and not do what I tell you?” (6:9) Jesus asks them, drawing on the same images of falling and rising as in Simeon’s prophecy. When Jesus is arrested, the misguided disciples bring swords for an imagined military leader, and one of them mutilates the servant of the high priest. Even after the resurrection, the two disciples on the road to Emmaus fail to recognize Jesus until he breaks bread; when Jesus stands among the 11, they initially think that he is a ghost (24:39).

Mary has been absent through all this incomprehension and misidentification. I do not think we can retrace the level of her understanding. She only reappears in Acts when she is in the upstairs room (1:14); besides the Apostles, she is the only one who is named. During Jesus’ earthly ministry, as his identity remains veiled, his family attempts to see him. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus does not criticize their coming, but says, “My mother and my brothers are thosewho hear the word of God and do it” (6:21).

When a passerby later praises his mother, Jesus responds, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it” (11:28). This perhaps identifies Mary as one characterized by faith and obedience, who hears and keeps the word of her son, and who will finally pass through the crisis represented by Simeon’s sword. For much of Jesus’ life, as the other people in the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel quite possibly passed away and the disciples had not yet begun to understand, Mary was perhaps the only one with such faith. For some time, perhaps only Mary and angelic and demonic figures realize that Jesus is the Son of God.

What kind of faith has characterized Mary’s life? The Anglican-Roman Catholic Agreed Statement, Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ, declares Mary’s faith to be distinctive in its “openness to God’s Word.” Mary is pictured as “growing in her relationship with Christ.” She grasps that Jesus has an “eschatological family, those upon whom the Spirit is poured out,” including those in the upstairs room in Jerusalem.

But none of this could have been easy, obvious, or immediate. Openness to God’s Word led Mary to the cross. The eschatological family formed as Jesus’ natural family was transcended. After all, in the account of the 12-year-old Jesus at the Temple, as John Kilgallen writes, “Luke has consciously arranged a sharp contrast by placing so close together Mary’s phrasing ‘your father and I’ and Jesus’ phrasing ‘in the house of my Father.’” Perhaps no gentle or calm words, nor an arm around the shoulders, could completely neutralize such a contrast.

In a 2012 audience, Pope Benedict XVI noted that Luke’s account of Mary connects her to Abraham, who had to leave behind all security to “journey to an unknown land, assured only in the divine promise.” Mary’s faith, presumably her lonely treasuringfor years, included an “element of obscurity” and even a “period of darkness.” If Mary is a model of faith, this is a faith that can be “called into question by events,” and that leads us on a road in which “we encounter patches of light, but we also encounter stretches in which God seems absent, where his silence weighs on our hearts.”

In other words, this faith is like a sword. As we remember St. Mary and St. Joseph, we should realize that we never face it alone.

[1] I am indebted to his 2018 Wheaton dissertation, “The Revelation of the Messiah: The Christological Mystery of Luke 1-2 and its Unveiling in Luke-Acts” for much of this exegesis. 


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