December 30, 2012
1 Samuel 2:18-26
Luke 2: 41-52
Clark Griswold: I’m just trying to treat my family to a little fun.
Ellen Griswold: Oh spare me, Clark, I know your brand of family fun. Tomorrow you’ll probably kill the desk clerk, hold up a McDonalds, and drive us 1000 miles out of the way to see the world’s largest pile of mud!
– From “National Lampoon’s Vacation”
Most family vacations don’t end up quite as badly as the Griswolds’ trip to WallyWorld theme park (with a dead dog and a dead aunt). In “National Lampoon’s Vacation”, the Griswold’s pilgrimage to WallyWorld goes from bad to worse to a complete flaming mess, culminating in their arrival at the theme park … to discover that it’s closed for renovation (Guard: “Sorry folks, park’s closed. Moose out front shoulda told ya”).
In the first Gospel reading after Christmas, we get to see the first Holy Family vacation, which – although nowhere near as bad as the Griswolds’ – has all the stress of a typical family pushed to the edge. The trip starts uneventfully enough, as Mary, Joseph and Jesus (now age 12) go to Jerusalem for the annual Passover festival, as is their habit. The walking distance from Nazareth to Jerusalem was about 68 miles – about a four days’ journey on foot, if there are no interruptions. The journey – even in the best of circumstances – was difficult and fraught with potential danger from bandits, as well as all the interpersonal annoyances of riding in a caravan.
The Gospel author Luke skips from there directly to the end of the festival, where Jesus decides to stay behind in Jerusalem without His parents’ knowledge. Assuming He was in the caravan with friends and relatives, Mary and Joseph did not realize He was missing until one day’s journey (about 17 miles) into the return home. Author David Ewart points out that, at this point, Mary and Joseph have to make the dangerous decision to leave the relative safety of the caravan and travel by themselves back to Jerusalem. Ewart also points out that “It would also be shameful as it would make public that Jesus had not been obedient to them” (Holy Textures). First Century listeners to this story probably would have been cringing on Joseph’s behalf as the shamed patriarch.
The text then says that “After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions” (Luke 2:46). Three days’ additional stay in Jerusalem was no small matter for Joseph and Mary, who we know were poor. They would have had to come up with the additional money for lodging and food in a large city far from people who knew them. Even though Luke says that “all who heard [Jesus] were amazed at his understanding and his answers” (vv.47), this does not allay the pent up parental frustration of Mary and Joseph.
Mary is the one who finally bursts out with “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety” (vv.48). David Ewart points out that “It is noteworthy that it is his mother and not his father that questions Jesus in public. Normally only the man would discipline his family” (Holy Textures). First Century male listeners to this story may well have been thinking “Soooo, where’s Joseph? I guess we can see who wears the pants in this family.” It is interesting that Luke does not hesitate to show the Holy Family in all its social awkwardness at this moment of crisis.
In what would become one of His signatures, Jesus comes back with a riposte (the question-riposte-bafflement pattern can be seen throughout Luke): “He said to them, ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ But they did not understand what he said to them” (vv.49-50). So here is the poor patriarch Joseph and Mother Mary, absolutely floored by this smart-mouthed kid who not only leads them on a wild-goose chase for three days, but discourses with the Temple doctors and spouts sayings that cannot be fathomed. First Century listeners were probably smacking their foreheads and saying “Oy!”
However, Luke ties up the story neatly with a happily-ever-after ending: “Then [Jesus] went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor” (vv.51-52). This ending may seem a little artificial to modern readers, but I think Luke had to think of his audience’s expectations – if Jesus was the Messiah, He couldn’t very well turn out to be a bad boy who constantly shames His family. So in spite of the Holy Family vacation from Hell, everything ended up fine. It reminds me of those times of family crisis where you turn to each other and say “You know, we’ll laugh about this years from now”. Things might not be so great in the present, but they will come into perspective in the end.
This is a good lesson for us, as we come back down from the Christmas spirit(s), return from the family vacations, and confront the post-Christmas credit card bills sitting on the kitchen table, all the while with the Fiscal Cliff breathing down our necks. This might be a time when our families are not at their best either. But the Holy Family vacation shows us that, no matter how God-awful the situation, God can work with us and through us anyway, in spite of ourselves. We are not alone. Thanks be to God!