You’re probably familiar with the short story The Gift of the Magi by the pseudonymous author O Henry. The story is about a young couple who are richly in love but financially poor. As they did not have the means to buy one another the kind of Christmas gifts they wished to give, each made a sacrifice for the sake of the other. The wife was very proud of her beautiful hair, so she sold it to a wig maker in order to buy a chain for her husband’s prized pocket watch. The husband, in turn, sold his pocket watch in order to buy a set of beautiful combs for his wife’s cherished hair. As they had not communicated with one another about their individual financial difficulties or their decisions to part with their most prized possessions, each received a thoughtful gift that was also quite useless.
The Gift of the Magi is a parable about the self-sacrificing nature of love, but it might also be a parable about the misunderstandings that result from the inadequate communications of those whose love is still somewhat immature. The author of Luke’s Gospel was very concerned about the negative consequences of misunderstandings and miscommunication. At the very beginning of the Gospel, the author tells us that he intends to set the record straight about Jesus, his life, and his death.
The Gospel’s author lived at a time and in a place where Christians were treated with suspicion by government authorities. Luke’s Gospel intends to clear up any misunderstandings about the person and work of Jesus and, by doing so, clear up any misunderstandings about his disciples. The Gospel author wanted Roman Imperial authorities to understand that Christians were trustworthy neighbors and good citizens. He pursued this goal by providing an accurate description of Jesus of Nazareth.
The Gospel author began his accurate description by composing a very elaborate pre-history of Jesus’ ministry. The stories of Jesus’ conception, birth, infancy, and childhood prefigure the events of his life and death. Today’s Gospel reading gives us insight into the author’s intentions and his writing strategy.
The event of Jesus being found teaching and debating in the Temple intends to portray Jesus as precociously wise and courageous. In normal circumstances, a twelve-year-old would be no match for the learned Scribes, but Jesus impresses them with his wisdom. After his encounter with the religious scholars, the young Jesus returns home and is obedient to Mary and Joseph, a reference to the obedience to legitimate authority that the Roman Empire can expect from Jesus’ disciples.
This extraordinary scene also prefigures what unfolds later in the Gospel. The three days during which Mary and Joseph searched for Jesus are a reference to the three days he would lay in the tomb before his resurrection. The young Jesus makes clear the reference to his future death and resurrection by asking, “Why did you search for me? Don’t you know I have to accomplish my Father’s work?” (Lk. 2:49)
As the Gospel narrative progresses, we read further clarifications about Jesus’ divine origins, his vocation as God’s Chosen One, and the meaning of the redemption that he effected by his death. The Gospel author is deeply concerned with these issues because there is so much room for misunderstanding.
For example, Jesus can be misunderstood as nothing more than a magician if one does not grasp the meaning of his miracles. He can be misunderstood as merely a very learned teacher if one does not see his vocation as the redeemer sent by God. He can be misunderstood as an insurrectionist if one does not perceive his unfailing loyalty to God’s will.
As I said above, these clarifications about Jesus were intended to be clarifications about his followers, as well. Jesus’ care for the poor, the compassion he showed to the sick, his fidelity to the Sinai Covenant, and his devotion to God can be seen in the lives of his followers. The author of the Gospel wants to be certain there are no misunderstandings in the minds of non-Christians; the followers of Jesus can be trusted, accepted, even valued by wider society.
Many centuries later, the intent of the Gospel author now serves another crucial purpose: it can help us avoid any misunderstandings about how we are to live. In our time, Christianity is very much a part of mainstream culture. Christians no longer live in fear of persecution for their faith; instead, the possibility of persecution has been replaced by another potential danger, the temptation to accommodate ourselves to secular society’s values.
The Catholic Church has existed for a very long time; it is spread across the whole globe and remains very influential in the world. It’s easy to see these aspects of the Church and fall into the misunderstanding that leads to pride and self-satisfaction.
In much of the world, the Catholic Church is very visible; there are many parishes, many church services, and easy access to the Sacraments. It’s easy to fall into complacency about the widespread presence of the Church and forget that our presence in the world is for the sake of serving our neighbors.
Christianity understands itself as the New People of God, redeemed and adopted by God through Baptism. It’s easy to fall into the sin of presumptuousness and consider ourselves to be better than those who don’t belong to our ecclesial community.
The story in today’s Gospel reading, like the rest of Luke’s Infancy Narrative, serves to prevent us from falling into misunderstanding about the Catholic faith. Luke’s assistance is necessary because, without it, we can get caught up in sentimentality, like the couple in The Gift of the Magi. In that event, our religious practices are made as pointless as the couple’s gifts to one another because, when we misunderstand our faith, we misrepresent the faith to the world.
Luke’s Gospel invites us today to be so grateful for God’s favor shown to us that we are eager to share our faith with all the world.