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It’s not easy being twelve.
It’s not so easy being the parent of a twelve-year-old either.
Maybe even a little more so if that twelve-year-old is the Messiah.
This is the only passage in the Bible that tells us a story of Jesus participating in the universal human experience of being a kid, with every bit of the joy and frustration that involves.
Imagine how it is to be Jesus in this story. Here he is, twelve years old, just a year short of young manhood in his culture, given a chance to run around in the big city during the most important festival of the year. He finds his way to the Temple where his passion for God finds an outlet as he begins hanging out with these older, wiser rabbis—and lo and behold, he actually has a contribution of his own to make to the conversation. He’s being taken seriously by these adults—adults who are not his parents!— he’s grappling with his identity and beginning to discover a sense of calling.
And, of course, while all this is happening, he’s also being COMPLETELY oblivious to the fact that he’s putting his parents through hell. Which lets us draw the theological conclusion that when the Word of God became incarnate as a human being, he took on all of human nature, including the adolescent part. Including that quality of complete absorption in the events at hand that makes parents tear their hair out and use dreaded phrases like “teenage irresponsibility.” It’s no wonder they’re angry when they find him. Maybe even more so after his response, which after all seems a little flip. “Your father and I have been out of our minds with worry looking for you.” “Why, didn’t you know I’d be in my Father’s house?” Joseph gets the worst of it, with Jesus’ play on the word “Father.” There’s a theological point here about how Jesus’ identity as child of God is more fundamental than his identity as child of Mary and Joseph. But there’s also a strong hint of “Oh yeah? You’re not my real dad anyway.” If you’re from a blended family, you can appreciate that dynamic all too well.
So there’s pain here. But there’s also something precious. Jesus is growing up, and his parents can’t fully understand him. He’s entering into a world where they can’t totally follow. And in some way, they seem to get that, and there’s grace here too: it says Jesus goes back to Nazareth with them and is obedient to them, and Mary treasures these things in her heart, and Jesus grows in favor with God and people.
There’s so much here to identify with for any of us. Have you ever felt like your parents didn’t understand you? Ever wished you had a secret, special destiny? Ever parented a young person who took you for granted and knew just how to say the things that would hurt you the most? Ever had a family conflict that broke your heart, and then found a way to reconcile? This story is so precious because it’s so incarnational, so fully illustrative of Jesus as sharing our experience of what it is to be human. His vocation may be unique, but his experience of being an adolescent is the same one we share. Each of us, as we grow older, has to come to grips with the task of figuring out just who we really are. For Jesus that identity was the eternal Son of God. For us it’s different. But as Paul says today in the letter to the Ephesians, in our baptism we become children of God by adoption through Jesus Christ. We’re given a share in the relationship between God and God’s beloved child Jesus, and that becomes our truest deepest, identity.
For a while when I lived in Seattle I volunteered as a chaplain at the county juvenile detention center. One week I had a young man ask to talk to me; let’s call him Rico. He said he was worried about his mom who was in danger of being deported. Depending on how his drug treatment program went, he might not be released in time to see her. Meanwhile, he was also worried about his own kids. At age sixteen, Rico had three kids, with three different mothers. But none of this was the real reason he wanted to talk. Rico told me he wanted me to help him pray—for all these worries, but also for his fellow young people at the detention center. And in particular, he wanted to learn to pray for his enemies. I jotted down what he said to me shortly afterwards. He told me, “I feel like I need to pray for my enemies because God loves them too. I don’t need to fight them to prove who’s the biggest man. Praying for them is what Jesus would do.”
Jesus came to discover that being God’s child was a deeper identity than what the world knew him as, Mary and Joseph’s child. Two thousand years later, Rico was discovering that his own identity as God’s child was deeper than what the world knew him as, a juvenile offender, or an immigrant, or a drug user, or any of the other labels that might be applied to him. And he was learning to see his enemies as God’s children too.
“Who are you?” That’s the question we begin to try to answer in adolescence, and we keep answering throughout our whole lives. Who you truly are is not just who your parents say you are, who your friends say you are, who your society says you are, or even who your church says you are. Who you really are is who God says you are. And what God says is: You are my child—uniquely created, uniquely redeemed, uniquely loved.
When we’re secure in that identity, we can find the strength to live the abundant life God calls us to live—even when it calls us to do hard things like forgiving our enemies, from the detention center, or from the cross.
The writer Mark Bozzuti-Jones has written about what it can feel like to experience ourselves as children of God. He writes, “Act silly to make God laugh. Curl up in the arms of God. Ask God to read you a story. Allow God to throw you up in the air. Play hide and seek with God. Allow God to play hide and seek with you. Cry when God goes away. Squeal with delight when God comes back. Listen to God say how much you are loved.”
As this Christmastide draws to a close, may we have ears to hear that message of love.
 For more reflections on the richness of this story and its connections to youth ministry, read the first several pages of the “Sample Pages” available from the Journey to Adulthood program at https://www.leaderresources.org/assets/images/J2A/J2A%20Overview%202016.pdf.
 The Womb of Advent (New York: Church Publishing, 2007), 87.