In a recent article in America magazine, Daniel Harrington reviewed John Meier’s fourth volume of his monumental study of the historical Jesus: Jesus, a Marginal Jew. At the end of his favorable comments, Harrington states that Meier’s research is so important that his four books should be on every thinking person’s bookshelf, “wedged between Raymond Brown’s Birth of the Messiah and his Death of the Messiah as classics in American Catholic biblical scholarship.”
Just one problem: the vast majority of Christians haven’t heeded Harrington’s advice, especially during the Christmas season when Brown’s Birth of the Messiah should be required reading. Most of us still regard the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke’s gospels to be factual history. We’re in denial, for instance, about the contradictions which surface when we read these four chapters critically. Pretending they don’t exist, we create a third infancy narrative in our minds and project it into our Christmas plays, conflating the two contradictory gospel accounts. Though Brown’s book - complete with an “Imprimatur” - has been available for over 30 years, few have availed themselves of his scholarly insights.
I already had problems with today’s gospel pericope as a child. Why would Joseph and Mary, who both had received annunciations informing them of their son’s unique personality, worry when he’s lost for a few days? He’s God. His parents should worry when they’re lost; not when their divine child is lost.
And when they eventually find him in the temple, why does Mary ask, “Son why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.” She was informed about her son’s divinity in Gabriel’s annunciation. Why would she question God’s motives for doing anything?
Besides, only the son of God could get by answering, “Why were you looking for me?” I certainly wouldn’t have been courageous enough at the age of 12 to ask my father anything like that after he’d been searching for me for three days. Imagine the response I would have gotten. Then, presuming the double annunciations, Jesus’ last question - “Did you not know I must be in my Father’s house? - provokes an unintelligible reaction from his parents: “They did not understand what he said to them.” If they already understood what the angels told them, why would they have problems with their son’s comment?
Brown responds to all these questions with one simple answer: Luke employs a source at this point of his infancy narrative which knew nothing of Mary and Joseph’s annunciations. According to that source, Jesus’ parents, like all parents, were “flying blind” when it came to understanding their child. Day by day, year by year, they had to discover who Jesus really was.
Some parents, like Hannah and Elkannah might generously dedicate a child to God, but all of us know not every “dedicated child” turns out as Samuel did. God isn’t bound to fulfill our expectations.
How would Joseph and Mary have related to Jesus if they hadn’t received privileged, angelic information about him? We presume they simply would have followed the advice the author of I John gives. (Of course, we’ll have to omit how the writer ties Jesus into it.) They kept God’s commandments and did what pleased him. But, most of all, they loved one another just as God commands all of us to do.
It’s amazing to discover what special persons children can evolve into when they constantly experience a deep love of one another, beginning in their families.
Even if Luke’s “other source” doesn’t mesh perfectly with the rest if his infancy narrative, it certainly provides us with a lot of practical implications for raising and understanding children.