Commentary by Fr Donagh O’Shea OP, www.goodnews.ie
“The child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.” This shows that they had no hindsight; they thought of themselves in every way as normal people. This is their connection with us. Had they thought themselves special from birth, they would be as distant from us as a royal family. But we see them following the ordinary custom of presenting the child in the Temple, and their offering is the offering of the poor.
When something is actually happening we have no hindsight on it. Of course we see things more clearly with hindsight; hindsight is always 20/20, as someone said. But in a way it can be a false and garish light. It judges people in the light of events that they could not have known about; it allows them no future, no development, because we see their future already present in everything they do and say. It flattens out their life like a sheet of paper on which everything is visible simultaneously.
It was the hindsight of the Resurrection, of course, that enabled the disciples to see the life of Jesus in a new light. But this new light of faith did not and was never meant to nullify his earthly life. The early heresies of Docetism and Monophysitism fell into this very trap. Trace elements of these early heresies lived on in mainline theology, and many theologians of the past would have held that Jesus knew all human languages and every event in future history. If that were the case he could hardly be said to be like us in all things but sin: “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). This tendency can be seen in some popular devotions, and we have to be careful lest while stressing the divinity of Christ we diminish his humanity and turn the events of his life into a melodrama. The teaching of the Church is that he is fully divine and fully human.
It is our family that makes and keeps us human. We were welded into it before we were born; it is our anchor in human history. Scholars believe that the gospel accounts (in Matthew and Luke) of Jesus’ childhood were not in the original form of the gospels but were added on at an early stage because they were needed to keep the story of Jesus anchored in this life.
In the West we now tend to think of the family as the ‘nuclear family’: father, mother and child. Then we project this onto the family of Jesus. But an Eastern family, even to this day, comprises a hundred people or more (this is how the child Jesus managed to get lost in the Temple). In today’s first reading, Abram complained to God of having no children. Then “God brought him outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them…. So shall your descendants be.’” Nothing nuclear.
Jesus too was part of an extended family. But that physical family was nothing compared to the spiritual family of disciples through the ages and through the whole world. We all have our part in extending it. Every time we extend a hand to a neighbour or a stranger we are extending that great family. With legitimate hindsight we can see his spiritual family continuing to extend till it includes the whole world.