Believers in search of understanding
Like Mary, we may not fully understand Jesus, but we hold him in our hearts
December 31, 2006 -- Sunday within the Octave of Christmas / The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph
By Fr. Michael Stubbs
It is fairly normal for children to mystify their parents. How did little Willie climb over the backyard fence, which looked as though it should have been able to contain all manner of wild animals, ranging from kangaroos to mountain goats? The zoo manages to hold them captive, but this little child succeeds in escaping.
Although parents are frequently mystified by their children, Mary knew that her son was also the Son of God. The angel Gabriel had told her that. So, why is she surprised to find Jesus in the Temple of Jerusalem when he is missing from their traveling party? This puzzle lies at the heart of Sunday's gospel reading.
"Son, why have you done this to us?" Mary asks. "You see that your father and I have been searching for you in sorrow."
"He said to them: 'Why did you search for me? Did you not know I had to be in my Father's house?' But they did not grasp what he said to them."
Even Jesus' answer does not cut through their misunderstanding of his identity and the ramifications that result from it. Mary and Joseph return with Jesus to Nazareth, still mystified by his explanation of these events.
Mary's misunderstanding of who Jesus is and what he has said anticipates similar misunderstandings on the part of the disciples. For example, when Jesus predicts his crucifixion and resurrection, "They understood nothing of this; the word remained hidden from them and they failed to comprehend what he said." (Luke 18:34)
These emphatic words of Luke describe the disciples' misunderstanding upon Jesus' third prediction of the passion. The familiar saying maintains that "the third time's a charm," but that doesn't seem to hold here. The disciples continue as dense as ever.
The disciples do not understand Jesus and his mission. Even Mary, his mother, does not completely comprehend what it involves. Is it at all possible that we ourselves might have some trouble in this area? Is that perhaps the point of this narrative about the finding of Jesus in the Temple? How can we presume to understand Jesus more clearly than his own mother? Perhaps this concerns our own misunderstanding, as much as that of anyone else.
While the gospel story presents Mary as being puzzled by Jesus' behavior, it does not end with that assessment of Mary. It continues, "His mother kept all these things in her heart." Mary does not forget, even if she does not fully understand. The fact that she treasures these things in her heart holds out the possibility that eventually she will understand.
And when will she achieve that fullness of understanding? Is it when she hears the good news of her son's resurrection from the dead on Easter Sunday? Or, is it when she joins her son in the glories of heaven?
In any event, Mary provides us with an example of a believer who searches to understand the full meaning of Jesus' identity.
Like Mary, we also attempt to deal with the ramifications of who Jesus is in our lives. Without fully understanding them, we keep these words about Jesus in our hearts. One day, we also will understand.
(Fr. Stubbs, a priest of the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas, has a master's degree in theology from Harvard.)