“But they did not understand what he meant.” (Luke 2:50) These words, said of Mary and Joseph at the end of today’s Gospel, stem from the short exchange between Jesus and his mother: Mary had reprimanded Jesus for causing anguish to his father, Joseph (Luke 2:48), and to which Jesus, wondering why they were looking for him, responded, “Did you not know that I must be about his Father’s business, in my Father’s house?” … and they do not understand. (Luke 2:49) Two fathers in one story — one human, one divine — and Jesus is the son of both; hence the confusion. These are the first words of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel, and which, like his last (Luke 24:49), refer to God as his Father; they are a reminder that, for Jesus, his intimate and filial relation to God as Father is the centre and sum of his life and ministry. If we are to follow him, we too may be misunderstood, and we may even cause some pain and anguish to those whom we love. It is as Jesus put it: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26) Yet it comes with a promise: “Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.” (Matthew 19:29) Following Jesus and giving God priority in our lives is about salvation, our salvation, and we must do what we must to obtain it. (Mark 10:17-22; Matthew 13:44-46)

Today’s Gospel begins: ‘Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover.’ (Luke 2:41) Torah required Jewish males to attend in Jerusalem each year for the feasts of Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles. Their visit here concluded ‘when the days of Passover were completed.’ (Luke 2:43) Torah faithfulness required the observant to stay for the whole festival. As in the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, and the stories of Anna and Simeon, the parents of Jesus are portrayed as faithfully observant Jews. However, as these stories illustrates, being religiously observant and familiar with Torah/knowing God’s Law and keeping it guarantees neither faith nor understanding: here Mary and Joseph do not understand; earlier Zechariah did not believe the promise of God given him by the angel (Luke 1:20) — yet all were observant and faithful Jews. We need to keep in mind that the story of Jesus is not just a human story; it is also the story of the inscrutable and unfathomable ways of God. Like the parents of Jesus, though we do all the ‘right things,’ so to speak, we must expect to experience from time to time some lack of understanding, be ‘astonished’ even (Luke 2:48), over what more/what extra may be asked of us by God’s Word, though we may be familiar with Jesus and his story. (Mark 10:20-22) At the end of this story we are told, “His mother stored all these things in her heart.” (Luke 2:51) Understanding the Jesus’ story and what he calls us to does not come in a flash; it requires time and struggle, and as this story shows, it may even require some little suffering and anguish before the light of understanding begins to dawn in our darkness. (C.f.: Luke 24:17-24, 32-33) Like Mary and Joseph, we will experience times when we lose sight of Jesus, and like them, we too may be none the wiser though we find him again!

In Luke’s Gospel, it is not only Mary and Joseph who ‘do not understand.’ His disciples, though they go with him on his way to Jerusalem, likewise do not understand (Luke 18:34. C.f.: 2:41), nor do those two disciples at the end of Luke’s Gospel. (Luke 24:45. C.f.: 2:43) Then, in the Acts of the Apostles (also written by St Luke), the Roman Jews who heard St Paul preach, do not understand; our efforts to help others understand may come to nothing. (Acts 28:26) Lack of understanding in regard to God is normal. It need not, however, be the final verdict, nor need it jeopardise our salvation. For even Jesus, caught up in the depths of human anguish in the Garden, can be seen as not understanding the ways of the Father: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” (Luke 22:42. C.f.: Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46) Being able to go forward in trust only on the strength of a final, “Nevertheless,” must be something Jesus learned not just from Mary. (Luke 1:34-38) For, as we see in the story of Joseph as he wrestled with what to do about a pregnant fiancé, he would not have understood what was told him by the angel in a dream (“Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” Matthew 1:20). Nevertheless we are told: ‘When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took her as his wife.’ (Matthew 1:24)

Going forward with God though we do not understand, is the way of faith. For salvation does not depend on human wisdom and understanding, but rather as our First Reading has it: ‘It all depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace.’ (Romans 4:16) Our salvation rests with God and is in his hands. St Paul goes on to explain what this means for us using the faith of Abraham to illustrate: ‘At the promise of God he did not waver in unbelief, but was empowered by faith, giving glory to God by being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.’ (Romans 4:20-21) We, too, at times will need to go on in faith, giving glory to God by just simply being ‘fully convinced’/‘not wavering in unbelief’ that God can do what he has promised — and salvation, our salvation, is from the outset but a promise that we are called to believe in wholeheartedly. Much of our journey in faith will be bewildering (C.f.: Romans 7:15ff), yet if we care to look back, we can, if we will, see the hand of God busy in it. We, too, need to ponder what we do not understand so as to come to see God busy in our lives, and seemingly leading us on to everlasting life with him, incredulous though this may be. Then, we too, will be able to join Mary in her Magnificat: “My soul is ecstatic, overflowing with praise to God! My spirit bursts with joy over my life-giving God! For he looked on me in my nothingness.” (Luke 1:46-48)

By Dom Steele Hartmann OCSO