Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Learning to Walk

What a difference a year makes! Just a year ago my son Isaac was a babe in swaddling clothes. It seems as if I blinked and suddenly he is a toddler. The shift was especially dramatic this past month, as he crossed a major milestone and began walking. He is so proud of himself! He cackles like a villain as he toddles around the living room, glancing at me every few steps for approval.

Last week he even got to show his new skills off to his grandparents. I took him across the street from my parent’s house to the same playground I played on when I was his age, and he got a lot of practice walking across the blacktop and falling into the wood chips. My father said to me, “Y’know it seems like just yesterday that it was you who was learning to walk!”

My children are still so little, so I can only imagine what it must have been like for many of you to watch your children grow from babies to adults. To go from learning to walk to learning to drive, to leaving for their first day of pre-school to moving away to college. I want to keep my children close to me always, but I know that inevitably they will grow into independent adults and live their own lives, following the path that God has prepared for them.

To be born is to begin a journey. To be human is to learn and to grow. None of us sprang into existence exactly as we are now; we began weak and helpless and only gradually attained greater independence. Jesus was no exception to this rule. Each of us had to learn how to walk. Isn’t it remarkable to think that the great God and creator of the universe would submit to this process? That the Eternal Son would need his mother to wipe his chin and change his diaper?

There is a stain glass window in our chapel directly across from where I sit to say Morning and Evening Prayer. It depicts Jesus as a young boy standing beside Joseph who is a work in his carpentry shop. The child’s head is bowed submissively as his earthy father and guardian patiently instructs him. Does it strain your imagination to think that there might be something this poor laborer could teach to the incarnate God?
In the Islamic faith, Jesus is not divine, and yet neither is he as human as our Jesus! In the Koran, Jesus’ mother gives birth to him alone in the desert under an olive tree. When she returns home carrying the baby in her arms, her family is distressed and assumes that she has compromised her virtue. They cry,

 “O sister of Aaron! Your father was not a man of evil, nor your mother a woman unchaste.”

But the infant amazingly begins to speak and defend his mother. He declares,

 “I am indeed a servant of God: He has given me revelation and made me a prophet.”

Following the example of many fanciful apocryphal texts, the Koran also depicts Jesus as performing miracles as a child such as bringing clay pigeons to life.  Such tales are notably absent from the Gospel narratives. We are told very little about Jesus’ boyhood. He no doubt had a typical childhood, despite his miraculous birth. I imagine it was fairly easy—in the day to day responsibilities of raising the child—for his parents to put his divine identity out of mind and to treat him as any parents would their little boy. Can it be doubted that in those years—despite what the Angel told her, despite the words of Simeon’s prophecy—his mother Mary cherished the same wish that every mother has of keeping her little boy with her always? And yet, in our Gospel reading today, she is reminded that her boy—now on the cusp of manhood—must soon leave her, that he has a greater destiny, that he must be about his heavenly father’s business.

During the family’s annual trip to Jerusalem, Jesus wanders off from his family. He is drawn like a magnet to the Temple, to the place where the learned scribes and teachers discuss the Holy Scriptures. Jesus is becoming an adult. He is beginning to show signs of the remarkable man he will be. The teachers of the law are surprised at just how wise and gifted he is for a boy his age.

You might wonder, how is it that it took his parents a whole day to realize that their son was missing? But remember Jesus is twelve years old now. A boy his age, in his culture, was allowed a larger degree of independence. Mary and Joseph were traveling with a whole group of relatives. What twelve year old boy wants to hang around the skirts of his mother when he could be off with his cousins? They were probably used to the older children doing their own thing while the parents did theirs. It soon became apparent to them, however, that Jesus was not with his cousins or any of the other relatives.

When I was around the same age Jesus is in this passage, I can recall wandering away from my parents while on vacation and my parents being simultaneously angry and relieved when they finally found me. It is that awkward age when you are beginning to feel like an adult, but your parents still think of you as a child. Jesus is no different. He is genuinely puzzled as he says to her, "Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?"

Luke tells us that at the time Mary didn’t understand what he meant, but that she pondered all of these things in her heart. Just as Jesus’ emergence into his destiny was a gradual one, so is his mother’s understanding and acceptance of who her son is and what he is called to be is a gradual one.

When reading this scene, I can’t help but think also of another event later in Jesus’ life. Jesus is teaching the multitudes when it is reported to him, “Your mother is outside with your brothers and sisters. They want to speak to you.” His response seems a bit insensitive, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.”

I think that perhaps Mary was having trouble accepting the fact that her Son was not her own, that he belonged to the world, and that he was the son of God the Father before he was her boy. I imagine when Mary heard Jesus’ response she pondered it in her heart just as she had with the story of the shepherds at his birth, and with what her son told her when she found him in the temple. It was dawning on her that she needed to let her son go. How could she have known what she was getting into when she said yes to the Angel Gabriel?

What about the wedding at Cana? Jesus was reluctant to act, but Mary insisted that he do something. How could she have known where it would lead when she pushed him out into the spotlight?  Soon the words that the prophet Simeon spoke to her would come to pass. A sword would pierce her heart as she watched her Son die, lifted up as a sacrifice for the sins of the world.

I think it is natural for parents to keep their children sheltered from the world, after all God has entrusted them to our care and guardianship, but eventually we must begin the painful process of letting them go, and of entrusting them to God and to their wider destiny. I think it is also natural for children to sometimes be reluctant to leave the comforts of home and follow where God leads them. Parents need to have the wisdom and strength that Mary had to nudge their children out of the nest when it comes their time to fly.

The life of faith is all about learning to walk. We put one foot in front of the other and step into an unknown future. The process can be hard and sometimes it requires a lot of sacrifice. What is it that God has in store for you? What is the purpose to which he is calling you? Put your trust in God, and with each passing day, with every turning of the year, you will increase in wisdom and in his grace and favor.