February 2, 2020, Charles D. Mayer
Looking back over the past few years, during which I have been here at St. Paul’s on the first Sundays in February, I notice that we have not observed the feast of the Presentation of the Lord on those first Sundays (it is optional, but not required, if the Feast does not fall on a Sunday). So, it is a special thing that it falls on a Sunday this year: February 2, 40 days after Christmas. It was the clear intention of the ancient Church to mark this day as the end of the Christmas season, very much following the Gospel of Luke, which is the only Gospel that includes today’s story. Indeed, only Luke says anything about the childhood and youth of Jesus beyond his infancy; in Luke, we see Mary and Joseph as good Jewish parents who are respectful of Jewish Law and of the Temple, and who observe the practices of circumcision at eight days and presentation at forty days.
If you think about it, this is one of the only opportunities we get to encounter Mary and Joseph as parents in a Gospel text on a Sunday morning, and as we noted it doesn’t happen even once a year! So clearly, it’s a morning for us to learn from them as parents, and to think about some implications for ourselves.
So how does the Gospel portray Jesus’ parents? That they were observant Jews and made sure that their son was properly initiated into the family of God. Of everything that the bible might have told us about Jesus’ parents, this is what is highlighted. So, the Gospel teaches us that of all the things parents do, initiating their children into religious community is of paramount importance.
I don’t know about you, but as a parent and a mental health professional, I might not necessarily think of this as at the top of my list of parental responsibilities. Don’t get me wrong – I place great value on Baptism, and on the rites of initiation of other religious traditions. But why would this be the one thing the text chooses to emphasize for us?
Well, interestingly, and I’m sure not coincidentally, I began working on this sermon on a morning on which I felt like a less than stellar parent in a conversation I had with my ten-year- old daughter before school. I was trying to make a point about taking her participation in the school band seriously and wound up hurting her feelings because she said I sounded like I didn’t want her to have fun. It was not my intention at all, of course, but she really had a point. And I felt like I only muddled things further when I tried to explain myself. Having dug myself a hole, I just kept digging.
Ugh. We’ve all been there, right? If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a parent, it’s that no amount of professional training prepares a person for the experience. The parent/child relationship is utterly unique: it is the job of each child to differentiate from her caregivers, and it is the job of the caregiver to allow that differentiation to happen. We have to allow the people most precious to us to find their own way.
One thing I find – as in the example of my conversation about the school band – is that very often I’m sure I’m only instilling good values, whereas in fact I’m also importing my own agenda in a way that is not really sensitive to what my daughter wants. Kids can become narcissistic extensions of us as parents – we’re loving who we want them to be rather than who they are. I don’t know any parents who have been entirely able to avoid this.
Perhaps this is why the Gospel tells us what it tells us about Mary and Joseph. We aren’t given examples of their parenting style – it surely was the same mixed bag that characterizes all parenting. No, instead we are told that they valued including their son in the initiation traditions of their religious community, in which all children stand in equal stead with God. Placing our children in God’s hands, in community, from the beginning, is the most important thing we can do because unlike our behaviors, God’s purposes are always organized around the true best interests of God’s children.
It’s interesting to look ahead to the next story about Jesus’ childhood in Luke’s Gospel, in which Jesus is taken to Jerusalem for the Passover at the age of twelve, his parents lose track of him, only to find him in the Temple astounding the elders with his teaching. (Luke 2:40-50). It is, of course, true of Jesus in an extraordinary way, but the point still stands: Luke is telling the story of Jesus becoming his own person, the person God created him to be. This is the goal of all parenting: to see who our children are and to help them become just that. And this is most likely to happen, the Gospel clearly suggests, in the context of life with others in religious community: sharing the task of parenting with other parents who want their children to be who they were made to be.
Once a year or so, I accept an opportunity to review a book for the Anglican Theological Review. I’m currently preparing a review of a review book on teens, technology, and mental health by a pair of English mental health professionals (Teen Mental Health in an Online World, Betton and Woollard). The book, it seems to me, is extraordinarily right-minded in that instead of hysterically trumpeting the dangers of technology, it encourages people who care for teenagers – parents, clergy, teachers, therapists, etc. – to start by listening to kids talk about what they find to be exciting and helpful about new technologies. In other words, don’t start by imposing an agenda: start by listening and learning.
I think it’s truly a biblical model of how to approach this issue. Like Jesus, all children have the capacity to astound us with their wisdom. By reminding ourselves that we have dedicated our children to God, we can relax, listen, and learn. We’ll then be much more able to bring our own wisdom to the task of raising them.
When Mary and Joseph finally found Jesus in the Temple astounding the elders, the following dialogue ensues:
Mary: “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”
Jesus: “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:48c-49)
Mary and Joseph, we are told, did not understand what had happened. And yet, we are also told that Mary “treasured all these things in her heart” (Luke, 50, 51c). She had an inkling, clearly. And even without full understanding, she treasured the interaction and carried it with her.
Relax, listen, and learn. This is our calling as parents. It is also clearly the calling of the Church as we seek a way forward in the 21st century. What might it mean for us as the Sister Episcopal Parishes of Ossining to be open to the next generation of children and youth? Can we trust that the future for them is not the picture we have of it, but God’s own dream for them as they discern it and teach us about it? Can we believe that we have presented them to God, and now they belong to Him?
May it be so for us.