In the name of the One who invites us into God’s future. Amen
Well, here we are on the Sunday after Christmas. Relatives and friends have come and gone, packages have been opened and the Christmas paper and ribbons are either in the trash or carefully ironed and saved for next year, depending on your family’s tradition (mine is firmly in the “Save the bows!” camp).
We’ve finished the last of the ham or the turkey. After-Christmas sales have either been ignored or enjoyed. Tomorrow night is New Year’s Eve. Once the Rose Bowl, the Fiesta Bowl and the Sugar Bowl games are over, it’ll be back to business as usual. Right? Well, that’s what the culture around us says.
In the Church, however, we’re in the middle of Christmastide, those 12 days of Christmas that really have nothing to do with gold rings, turtle doves, or partridges in a pear tree. As we were out of synch with the surrounding culture during Advent, we continue to be out of synch at Christmas.
As Christians, we take nearly two weeks to celebrate the mystery of God loving creation so much that God becomes human in Jesus.
What we have in the Gospel today is an incident from Jesus’ childhood.
Luke tells us that Jesus was 12 at the time of this story. Adolescence as our culture knows it didn’t really exist in the ancient world. People went from being children to being adults.
The Jewish custom of bar mitzvah didn’t come into being until the 16th century or so, but there was an understanding in Jewish law and tradition that boys took on religious obligations at about age 13. So today’s passage is from a time when Jesus was leaning across the threshold from childhood into adulthood.
The story from Luke isn’t very complicated: there’s Jesus and his parents and the annual Passover festival in Jerusalem. A group of family and friends from the area around Nazareth had traveled to Jerusalem for the festival, and Jesus and his parents had also made the trip as usual. The journey between Galilee and Jerusalem was dangerous, so people traveled together in caravans, much as the Central Americans who have come to the US looking for asylum have done.
In Luke’s telling of the story, the festival was over and people were on their way back home. I imagine it was something like what happens at the end of the State Fair: there are weary parents lugging stuff from the fair and overtired children and groups of older kids hanging out together.
It was a five-day walk from Jerusalem to Nazareth (if the roads were dry). At the end of the first day, Mary and Joseph go looking for Jesus among their relatives. He’s not there. You can only imagine their chagrin and worry. So they turn around and head back to Jerusalem to look for their eldest son.
Once they get to the city, they retrace their steps, looking for Jesus. On the third day of searching, they come upon him sitting in the Temple with the teachers of the Law, discussing points of scripture.
They are understandably upset: not only have they been worried for four days (one was spent getting back to Jerusalem, remember), but now they have a dangerous journey ahead because they had to leave the caravan. “How could you do this to us?” asks Mary. Jesus looks at her and asks, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know I’d be in my Father’s house?” His parents did not understand.
In the painting of this interaction by the 14th century Italian artist Martini, we see a grim-looking Mary locking eyes with a frowning and defiant Jesus sitting with his arms crossed, with Joseph in the background looking thoroughly put out.
I would imagine that the teachers of the Law watched this little drama with some embarrassment – It is never comfortable to see the inner conflicts of someone else’s family.
Mary wins the staring match and Jesus finally goes home to Nazareth with them.
There is more than one threshold to consider here: Jesus is at the threshold of maturity into adulthood. That puts Mary and Joseph on a threshold as well – one that they don’t recognize and cannot cross at that point.
However, the teachers in the Temple get it – they engage Jesus as a young adult, and everyone is amazed at the questions he asks and what he has to say. The teachers see something in Jesus that Mary and Joseph cannot see.
On one level, this is a simple coming of age story. But Jesus was also at an inner threshold of spiritual identity and call. He was sensing something of who God was calling him to be.
A threshold is simply something we cross to get from here to there. We can only get to ‘there’ by taking a step over the edge of ‘here.’ Sometimes the step is obvious and external. We can see where we’ve been and where we are going.
Taking a new job or moving into your first apartment or retiring or having a child go off to college are that kind of threshold. There is a clear sense of before and after.
Many external thresholds, however, carry an invitation to an inner, spiritual threshold. Sometimes these inner steps are more subtle or less welcome. A move means saying goodbye to one place, one set of relationships and going into unfamiliar territory emotionally. We might have to establish new and different relationships with family and old friends.
Spiritual thresholds are all about relationship and purpose. Spiritual thresholds invite us to a new sense of self, the changing of established relationships, and the forming of new ones. They invite us, challenge us, to know that we belong to something (someone) larger than ourselves. They call us to participate in God’s work of restoration of creation, of reconciliation.
A spiritual threshold can leave us feeling slightly off-balance and out of kilter. My sense of self changes as I take a step across a spiritual threshold. There may be a difference in what and who is there to support me.
It’s not unusual to be unable to see where we are going when we are crossing a spiritual threshold. All we know is that things are not what they were. It can take a while to get our bearings.
What thresholds might you and I be facing? A child ready to go her own way? A health issue that involves loss or diminishment? Downsizing and moving?
Here at St John’s we have crossed a couple of external thresholds in the past year or so: completing the Centennial Campaign and calling a new rector. What spiritual thresholds are opening up for us as a result?
How are we as a community being invited to go deeper into personal and spiritual maturity, into our common worship, into welcoming all without distinction, into the healthy nurturing of our children, to reaching out beyond the Church, to seeking Christ in all persons?
Some thresholds are small and look ordinary. Some affect our entire life and the lives of those we love. Whatever kind of threshold we are invited to cross, we must be fully where we are now. Being present to ourselves and patient with ourselves is the first step. We can only get there from here.
God is with us at every threshold, whether it’s orderly and neat or messy and full of uncertainty. God meets us wherever we find ourselves. God is present in all the phases of becoming who we are called to become.
In this upcoming year, may we be blessed with presence –
presence to our sense of who and where we are at the moment,
presence and awareness of what step we are being invited to take next, and the presence of God who invites us and accompanies us into the future, whatever it may hold.