+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
King Abdul Aziz, often referred to as Ibn Saud, was the founder and first monarch of modern Saudi Arabia. He died in 1953. His many accomplishments include having sired at least thirty-seven sons by over twenty wives.[i] The current monarch, King Abdullah, is the sixth king of Saudi Arabia, and like all the others since 1953, he is a son of King Abdul Aziz.
In other words, since 1953, all the kings of Saudi Arabia have been brothers, half-brothers. Each brother who ascends to the throne must designate a successor, a crown prince, from among the remaining brothers. Eventually, when all the sons of King Abdul Aziz’s have died, then the monarchy will pass to the third generation.
This merely hints at the royal family’s complexities, and these complexities are rapidly multiplying as there are now about seven thousand princes, each getting a cut of the national budget.
I assume that King Abdul Aziz, the founder, set up this system of succession, and it suggests to me that he had some significant unresolved issues about his own mortality.
For Christmas, a friend gave me a new fascinating book by Andrew Solomon called Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity. On the first page, he argues that our longing for immortality makes having children so alluring. That’s why we speak of people engaging in “reproduction.”
But he points out that having a baby really is an act of production. Two people are not reproducing themselves, but making a new and different person. Solomon says, “it is often ourselves that we would like to see live forever, not someone with a personality of his own… We depend on the guarantee in our children’s faces that we will not die.” It’s a fantasy of immortality through our offspring, vicarious continued existence.
Most parents, however, are probably conflicted because as far as I can tell most parents would also like their children to grow up and mature and become three dimensional, distinct and independent people. This requires parents to separate themselves from their children and to learn to love their children as they are, not for the best of themselves in their children, not for the best parts of themselves they see in their children.
King Abdul Aziz’s succession system looks to me like a grasp for immortality, and not surprisingly it didn’t satisfy him. Indeed, shortly before his death, as his sons fought for position, King Abdul Aziz said, “Verily, my children and my possessions are my enemies.”[ii] I can think of little more depressing. Most parents long for their children to be successful and devoted and to share their values. For a parent, few things can be as painful as a child who rejects them or feels like an enemy.
Before Israel had kings, before the first Temple in Jerusalem, over a thousand years before Christ, Eli was the Jewish high priest at Shiloh, a shrine where Israel gathered for sacred rites, worshipping God, offering sacrifices. Eli had two reprobate sons, Hophni and Phinehas. Jewish scripture calls them “scoundrels,” which means “worthless sons.”[iii] They stole offerings dedicated to God, and lived in dissipation and infidelity, womanizing and ignoring filial obligations. Eli was passive and ineffectual. The corrupt sons were the presumptive heirs, expected to administer the worship once Eli died, even though they had contempt for him as well as for God. They rejected their father and his values.
Another family. Elkannah married Hannah, but Hannah could not have children. Hannah prayed and vowed to God that if she could bear a son, then she would give the son back to God. God enabled her to conceive and bear a son, Samuel. Hannah loved her son, her precious son, but she gave her son to God by sending him to Eli so that he could serve at the Shiloh sanctuary. As Hannah dedicated her son to God, she sang a great song of praise, a song that provides the basis for the Magnificat, Mary’s song of praise to God.
Samuel grew up in Eli’s home, and Eli trained him to minister in the sanctuary. Hannah and Elkannah loved Samuel and continued to support Samuel. Each year Hannah made Samuel his coat, his robes, so that he could help Eli at the altar. In this life, Samuel grew and matured. He became respected by people.
Today’s reading from Samuel ends reminding us that a life of faith is about continued growth, always learning and developing. Luke used Samuel’s story to shape his telling of Jesus’ childhood. Like Samuel, Jesus was brought up in a family that cared for him and that worshipped God. In an act of significant devotion and sacrifice, Jesus’ family traveled to Jerusalem to participate in the Passover festivities. Like Samuel, Jesus was formed by his religious tradition and community. Like Samuel, Jesus grew and developed his faith; he had to find his place in religion; he gradually became aware of his relationship with God.
In today’s gospel, twelve year old Jesus has an age appropriate, adolescent conflict with his parents. They had made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem with extended family, friends, acquaintances, and as they returned home, Mary and Joseph had assumed that Jesus was traveling members of their extended family. After a day of travel, they became aware that Jesus had not joined the group as expected, and they anxiously rushed back to Jerusalem and searched for him. When they found Jesus in the Temple, their fear left them, but anger replaced it: “What are you thinking? Your father and I have been frantic searching for you?”
Jesus had been in the Temple talking to the teachers and astonishing them with his understanding. He was immersed in his own thing, and his parents – typical boring, dim-witted, out of it parents – interrupted him. Annoyed, he rudely replied to his mother, “Why are you searching for me? Of course, I’m here in my Father’s house.” It’s not just his tone. Mary had just referred to Joseph as Jesus’ father, and now Jesus is calling God his father and ignoring Joseph. He was tweaking them. I expect that it was very painful for Mary and Joseph.
I love today’s gospel because serious engagement with it means that we can’t sugar coat Christian family values, bible values. Life isn’t all sweetness and crystal clarity, but includes conflict, and that’s healthy. Throughout time, adolescents have questioned parental authority, challenged it, “dissed” it. This conflict is often essential for both the parents and the child as they learn new roles and responsibilities, as they re-define their relationship and behavior toward each other. The Commandments say, “Honor thy father and thy mother.” Conflict is painful, but it may be part of honoring mother and father because conflict is essential to growing and maturing. The issue is how to engage in conflict. There are positive and negative ways.
This theme of familial tension is not just in Luke’s gospel. John told of Jesus at the wedding in Cana getting exasperated by his mother. (Jn 2:4) In Mark’s gospel, Jesus ignored her. (Mk 3:33). There are so many saccharine and sentimental pictures of the Holy Family, and they make it difficult to be real about the Holy Family. Like every family, they had points of tension and conflict as well as points of harmony and warmth.
Today’s gospel might also help us appreciate Mary and Joseph, how challenging it was to be a parent to Jesus. He was different. Many parents experience a child who is different as an affront. Jesus was different, an aberration – mystifying, dazzling, even frightening. It is a huge challenge for families to tolerate, and then to accept, and hopefully come to celebrate a child who is not like themselves, not what they expected.
Solomon’s book describes the identity challenges of children, people, who are different, be they autistic, psychopathic, dwarfed, disabled, gay, or genius. He explores how many parents, through the power of love, learn happiness with their child’s differences. He writes, “To look deep into your child’s eyes and see in him both yourself and something utterly strange, and then to develop a zealous attachment to every aspect of him, is to achieve parenthood’s self-regarding, yet unselfish, abandon.” A zealous attachment to every aspect of him… a very high goal.
Solomon has written seven hundred pages of stories of people struggling to become intimate with differences and to accept of differences. It’s the work of empathy and compassion. These stories, he says, are a way for us to expand our definition of the human family. That grabbed me because that was clearly what Jesus wanted for all of us.
During his ministry, his mother and brothers came looking for Jesus. The crowd told Jesus, “Your mother and your brothers are looking for you?” And Jesus replied, “Who are my mother and brothers?” And he looked at the crowd surrounding him and said to them, “Here are my mother and brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.” (Mk 3:31-35)
Jesus tried to redefine and expand our sense family. It lies at the heart of communion, making us brothers and sisters. Jesus shares blood with whomever does the will of God, and the will of God is to love one another. The good news: despite our differences, despite our conflict and irritation and animosity, despite the way we may deviate from others, we’re all of the same family. We’re all members of the Holy Family.
+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spi
[i] Hugh Eakin, “Will Saudi Arabia Ever Change?,” The New York Review of Books, January 10, 2013, p. 38. Some sources indicate King Abdulaziz had 45 sons.
[ii] Wikipedia article on Ibn Saud, King Abdulaziz: Hertog, Steffen (2007), “Shaping the Saudi state: Human agency’s shifting role in the rentier state formation,” International Journal Middle East Studies 39: 539–563.
[iii] Samuel E. Balentine, article in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Year C, Westminster John Knox Press (2009), p. 149.