In the Fullness of Time: The Fullness of Family

The 12-Year-Old Jesus in the Temple, by Carl H. Bloch (1869).

The incident related in the Gospel of Luke, celebrated as the “Finding in the Temple,” has always been troubling. It’s the one and only glimpse we’re given into the “secret life” of the Holy Family. Earlier, we see baby Jesus with Simeon and Anna, redeemed in the Temple when he is 40 days old. Later, we see Jesus of Nazareth at the start of his public ministry, his baptism in the Jordan in his 30th year. In between, we see only this strange incident in the Temple, when Jesus was 12 years old: our one peek into the so-called “hidden years,” 90 percent of our Saviour’s life, when the Mother, Father, and Child all lived as a family. We’re supposed to learn something from the story, yet it seems so paradoxical.

The story is familiar, related with frustrating brevity in Luke (2:42-52): When Jesus was 12, the Holy Family went up to Jerusalem to observe the Passover. After the feast, while his parents were trudging back to Nazareth with friends and neighbors, unbeknownst to them, their son “stayed behind in Jerusalem.” That evening, after a full day’s journey, Mary and Joseph discovered that their boy wasn’t among their traveling kin, and naturally they panicked. They hurried back to Jerusalem, but only after three days do they find him in the Temple, regaling some rabbis during one of the customary rabbinical seminars in the Temple portico.

When his parents finally found him, “they were amazed.” But with truly holy restraint, his father does not cuff him, and his mother merely asks, “Son, why have you treated us so? Look, your father and I have been searching for you, sorrowing.” To which the Son replied, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that I had to be at my Father’s …?” (The Greek is ambiguous: perhaps his Father’s “house,” or more generally, his Father’s “business.”)

They did not understand what he had said. So he went down with them to Nazareth “and was obedient to them.” His mother “kept all these things in her heart.” And Jesus “grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.” And how mysterious is this?

In his Cantena Aurea (“Golden Chain”) on the Gospel of Luke, St. Thomas Aquinas collates the comments of the Church Fathers, regarding this episode. St. Cyril, Venerable Bede, Origen, St. Ambrose, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Gregory of Nyssa all generally assume that the boy Christ knew exactly what he was doing. Jesus “secretly tarried behind,” says Bede, “so that his parents might not be a hindrance to his carrying on the discussion with the lawyers,” while, at the same time, “he might neither be kept away nor be disobedient.” Apparently, the boy Christ thought it better to be deceptive than disobedient.

When his parents finally found him, says Origen, Jesus “rebuked” them. St. Cyril agrees: “The Lord reproves Mary for seeking him among their relations.” And St. Bede adds: “He blames them not, that they seek him as their son, but rather compels them to (acknowledge) what was due to him (the Father) whose Eternal Son he was.”

Then, says the consensus of Antiquity, Jesus returns with his parents to Nazareth, primarily to give a good example of obedience to hundreds of generations of 12-year-old boys, coming ever after. While he “grew in wisdom and stature,” says Cyril, this doesn’t mean that he wasn’t always the Omniscient God, but only that, in his human nature, “by degrees (his wisdom) was manifested” or made apparent to the rest of mankind.

Modern apologist Frank Sheed is somewhat more insistent that the boy Christ was a boy somewhat like other boys. Yet, “we can only guess why the boy did what he did,” says Sheed (To Know Christ Jesus). The uncomfortable fact is, “he had let them go on their way without him, separated himself from them, forsaken them.” It’s not clear, Sheed muses, what the boy means when he says he must be about his Father’s … business. But then, why had he stayed behind in such secrecy, so as to cause them three days of anguish? We do not know what this “business” was. We may presume it was very important, urgent enough to warrant inflicting such pain on his parents. But then, why couldn’t he have solicited their agreement in advance? Indeed, why wouldn’t he?

“There is one problem which must occur even to the most unreflective, every time he hears the Gospel read,” says Sheed, “namely, the contrast between the anguish in her question and the cool matter-of-factness of the 12-year-old boy’s answer, ‘Didn’t you know …?’” Commentators imagine the boy Christ softening this slap with a smile, adds Sheed, but the Evangelist never mentions that, and it remains a merely hypothetical assumption.

For his part, Pope Benedict softens the boy Christ’s “rebuke”: “Jesus corrects her: I am with my father,” Jesus insists gently (Jesus of Nazareth: the Infancy Narratives). The boy is, in effect, saying, “I must be with my Father,” asserting a necessity in his duty toward his Father, God. So, “what might seem like disobedience or inappropriate freedom vis-à-vis his parents is, in reality, the actual expression of his filial obedience.” And yet, the pope admits, “something of the sword of sorrow of which Simeon had spoken becomes palpable for Mary at this hour.” Does her own son then knowingly thrust that sword into her heart?

The problem is, if we assume the boy Christ knew what he was doing, then he is not innocent. He first deceives, and then rebukes, his mother and father, violating the Fourth Commandment, and he is apparently indifferent to his parents’ pain. He may have a good reason for all this, but on the face of it, we see the violation, and not the excuse. Further, if we assume that the boy Christ knew exactly what he was doing, as the Second Person of the Omniscient Blessed Trinity, whatever can it mean to say that, later, he then “grew in wisdom and stature”?

What if, instead, we begin from the assumption that the boy Christ really is innocent, and therefore, he really is asking an innocent question? He looks up innocently, sees his parents for the first time in three days, and with all the innocence of a 12-year-old boy who has simply lost track of time (as 12-year-old boys always do), he asks quizzically, “Didn’t you know …?” They had assumed that their good boy would have stayed by their side. He had assumed, for his part, that if they wanted him, they’d know where to find him. Now he’s simply surprised that they hadn’t come to get him—which means that he really didn’t know what they didn’t know.

Now, as anyone who has ever taught in a classroom knows, this issue of not knowing what other people don’t know is a major concern. Teachers have slipped on it from time immemorial, as have historians, jurists, and parents. So this might begin to answer the question: how could the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity “grow in wisdom and stature”? It might even have some bearing on the old question: why was it necessary for Providence to march the tribe of Judah through an 1,800-year training program—whipping it into a very peculiar Chosen People?

Admittedly, the question of what Jesus Christ did or did not know itself has always been troubling. There are times when he demonstrates superhuman knowledge—for example, when he saw Nathaniel “under the fig tree” (cf. Jn 1:47) and knew what he was thinking, even before Philip first introduced them. Then, there are times when he seems not to know something, but may be feigning ignorance to elicit a reply—as when a woman in the crowd, suffering from a hemorrhage, touched his cloak and was healed, and then the Lord asked, “Who touched me?” (Lk 8:45). But then there are times when Jesus really seems not to know, as when the rich young man asked, what more can he do to merit eternal life? And Jesus loves him, only then to be saddened by the young man’s—unexpected?—refusal to take the next step (cf. Mk 10: 21).

The issue of what the Lord needed to learn to grow in wisdom and stature, cannot be answered simply in terms of cataloging such instances. What we need to understand is what the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity needed to learn, in order to become fully human. Certainly the gentle reader is allowed to be sceptical toward any suggestion that—at the distance of two millennia—we can understand better than the Church Fathers, the import of this event in our Lord’s earthly life. But again, we face the problem of not knowing what other people don’t know. In all previous epochs, when a third of all children died in infancy, and another third in adolescence, people could not pay much attention to the little ones. Only in the past two centuries have we gradually become aware that infants do not come into the world as tiny adults. For it took two millennia of Gospel enculturation, to awaken a fascination with Early Childhood Development.

In his article, “Mary in the Church’s Doctrine and Devotion,” Hans Urs von Balthasar insists that Jesus Christ’s humanity—the humanity he is to redeem—must arise from his mother.1 This contradicts classical Hellenic embryology, which attributes all the biological inheritance to the father and grants the mother status only as a host. We now know now that the mother is fully half the genetic inheritance (not counting the maternal mitochondrial DNA). To redeem completely our humanity, Jesus Christ must become completely human—completely. And his mother must have given him that, or at least half of that, considering the reality of human genetics. For this reason, says von Balthasar, our Lady’s “Yes” at the Annunciation had to be complete and unreserved, with nothing held back, lest there be something in our humanity that remained unredeemed in her Son’s Death and Resurrection.

Now, we may always have assumed that the Omniscient Incarnate God needed to learn Aramaic and Hebrew from his parents, but not much more. Indeed, the development of speech in the first two years of life is a thoroughly physiological development, dependent on the face-to-face interaction of mother and child. Infants are neurologically hard-wired to seek out their mothers’ eyes, partly because they learn to distinguish reflexively speech-sounds from noise-sounds only given the stimulus of her “smiling face.” When they don’t get that stimulus, they “become” mentally challenged—or rather, fail to develop fully. Institutionalized infants apparently suffer a month’s developmental retardation for every two-to-three months of institutionalized care.2 This implies that had the Lord been left in a Romanian orphanage after birth, he would never have developed fully the neurophysiology of human speech.

For his part, von Balthasar insists we must go back even prior to our Lord’s learning human speech. Human beings are entirely helpless as newborns, he insists, because “the developing human being is intrinsically ordered to ‘being with’ (mitsein) others, so much so, that he awakens to self-consciousness only through other human beings”—normally his mother. “In the mother’s smile, it dawns on him that there is a world into which he is accepted and in which he is welcomed.” So, von Balthasar concludes, “even Jesus himself has, above all, his mother to thank for his human self-consciousness.” To suppose otherwise would “jeopardize Jesus’ genuine humanity.” Had baby Jesus been raised by wolves, like Mowgli in The Jungle Book, he would never have known himself to be a dependent human “self” among other human selves.

Now, it is a commonplace of Trinitarian theology that the Incarnate Son was always one with his Father (since he himself often says so, as in John 10:30). So, to suggest that the boy Jesus needed to develop a human self-consciousness may seem—yikes—to “jeopardize Jesus’ genuine divinity,” and his enduring unity with his Father. However, we really have no notion—this side of Eternity—what the immediate experience of the Father was like for the Son. And since “I and the Father are one,” the baby Jesus’ experience of his mother must have been very different: an other, like unto himself, but not one with him. Another, which is to say, another self, but apart from himself, as his Father was not, and dependent, but not united.

What is not being suggested here is that old, perennial Arianism, which heresy suggests that Christ only gradually learned of his divine vocation through prodigies like the “well-pleased” Voice at his baptism in the Jordan. No, he was always God with God. To repeat, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity was always united with, and in, the presence of his Divine Father. However, he still had to learn to become human, as every human must learn to become human, and that is a process of becoming in time. He did not need time to learn his divinity; he needed time to learn his humanity, as all humans do.

Here, perhaps, we come to grips with St. Paul’s description of the Incarnation: “Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God … emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of men” (Eph 2:6-7). Orthodox Byzantine iconography typically represents the Christ child as a perfectly proportioned little adult, as if any recognition of his human infancy would repudiate his divinity. Yet the Perfectus Deus had to become the Perfectus Homo, beginning from a single-cell zygote, uniting his mother’s 23 single chromosomes with … what? (Would you not want a single cell from the Shroud of Turin for genetic mapping?) And was that zygote, implanting in his mother’s womb, though united with his Father, even then aware of his humanity? United, yes, but humanly aware?

The fetal Jesus needed to be given adequate nutrition in the womb, and then the baby Jesus needed postpartum breast milk, chock-full of maternal antibodies. Yet, physical health is only part of the issue, of course, because in human development, physical and psychological health are completely intertwined. That the Lord became a Perfectus Homo, therefore, implies that he was raised in a Perfectus Domus—which may suggest a raison d’etre for the 1,800-year history of the Chosen People, which, in the Fullness of Time, could produce that perfect little domus in Nazareth, with the perfect mother and father.3

First, to repeat, the infant Jesus needed to develop self-consciousness in the light of his mother’s “smiling face.” The primary function of the mother and her cradling arms, for the first three years of her infant’s life, is to convey neuropsychological security. So we can thank the Blessed Mother for the fact that her human son did not have any noticeable flinches or cringing, bristling or bluster—nor the deep-seated anxiety that these betray.

Second, he needed to develop the neurophysiology of speech, and the discrimination of speech sounds from noise sounds—a process that requires both the mother’s babble and her smiling face. To this, the baby Jesus owed the full development of his frontal lobe, and all that implies. Absent that, Christ Jesus may well have bathed in the Glory of his Father’s face, but he would have been physiologically incapable of communicating with his fellow human beings.

Third, he needed to develop that deeply embedded archetype of human interdependency that fleshes out von Balthasar’s “being with”: mutual solicitude and sacrifice. This model of human solidarity is learned not from the parent-child relationship, but from the child contemplating the parent-parent relationship. The sort of affection that Jesus showed his friends in Bethany would have been learned from watching his mother’s and father’s affection toward each other. We owe it to St. Joseph, the real father of a real family, that the boy Christ did not risk the sort of pathology common in the sons of single mothers—the predatory human reflexes that might have developed, even while he was united to his divine Father.

Fourth, in childhood and adolescence, the boy Christ would have owed his family an appreciation for all the incarnate poetry of daily life: cautious housewives, restless shepherds, loudmouthed fishermen, barley fields and olive groves, loutish guests, demanding neighbors, and sometimes, brutal landlords. Had Mary and Joseph raised him in a lonely, isolated homestead, his parables would have been … thin.

Fifth, and even more important, the boy Jesus needed to be imbued with a sense of his cultural locus, his place in history. He was not growing up in the arrogant and tragic Iliad of Hellas nor the Gita of the Delhi Plain. Rather, he was born into the Divine Comedy of the Torah and the prophets of Israel, wrestling with the “word-webs of the Athenians,” and fretting under Roman rule in a cosmopolitan empire. The cultural reflexes he needed to develop—psychophysiological reflexes like standing in the synagogue—were not those of an indignant Achilles, but rather an impatient Isaiah.

Since Jesus’ Divine Father remains an Eternal Present, he owed this rooting in human history to his human father. Study after sociological study has demonstrated that the father—as distinct from the mother—is the decisive transmitter of religious commitment. The reflexes of this commitment must penetrate to the bone (like an ambitious young railroad man, seeing wealth in exposed coal seams). It is the transmission of a vocation, and all the prophetic reflexes required by that peculiar vocation. In the precise sense of the word, his father Joseph was not an “idiot,” a private man consumed with his private affairs. He was the Last Patriarch, intent upon seeing his son fulfill the promise to Abraham. And for this, we must presume, the father educated his son.

One might suspect that the awareness of a vocation first dominates a young man at about the age of 12—though many years might yet be required before he was capable of realizing that vocation. So, perhaps, this is the real, two-sided, and paradoxical meaning of that mysterious incident, “The Finding in the Temple.” The soon-to-be young man has realized his vocation, but he has not yet realized what he needs to learn in his relational reflexes: coping with what other people do not know.

What other people do not know, in his situation—what they could not know—was what Redemption would look like. Our Lord had to spend his entire public ministry forestalling the expectation that he would restore Israel to its old imperial glory. Even after his Death and Resurrection, and at his Ascension into heaven, the “old obsession” again reared its ugly head: “Lord, will you now restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). And arguably, the obsession reappears at the dawn of the 14th century.

The primary means by which Jesus was able to teach about the Kingdom, while averting his own coronation, was the parable. For certainly the most zealous of revolutionaries was pulled up short, by all Jesus’ talk of yeast, fishing nets, mustard trees, wheat and weeds, buried treasure, and expensive pearls. He was able to do this, because he was deeply rooted in a living culture that expected to be surprised, a culture that could say, “I will open my mouth in parables, I will announce what has lain hidden from the foundation of the world” (Mt 13:35).

The question now arises, of course: So what? What does any of this really matter?

First, it has often been remarked that the Fullness of Time, at which moment the Messiah arrived, enjoyed the Alexandrian Septuagint, Greek philosophic vocabulary, Roman law, and Roman roads—a moment, perhaps, ideal for the implanting of the Gospel among mankind. Yet perhaps, as already suggested, those 1,800 years of Abrahamic history—from the 400 years in Egypt to the Babylonian exile—were naturally necessary for nurturing the Perfecta Familia, capable of nurturing the Perfectus Homo.

Further, when we behold the most patient Mother crooning to her little baby Boy, then chatting in the free verse of village life, then Father and Son scrutinizing the wondrous portents of their people’s history—nothing in our little domestic cells can really be condemned as trivial. The materialistic “Enlightenment” assumed, that as things got smaller, they would get simpler—our bodily organs being mere “springs and wires,” atoms being simply itsy-bitsy grains of sand, and families simply being stables for breeding larger, and more important, nations. However, the continuous progress of natural science (arguably since the 13th century), has disproven that assumption. The atom has been found to be incomprehensibly precise; the biological cell, spectacularly complex; and living communities, urgently purposive. It is a tragedy of the first order, that our culture has drifted into treating infants as animal commodities, and families as malleable contracts, just at the moment that neurophysiology and developmental psychology begins to apprehend their wonder.

Practically speaking, if we wonder about the significance of that single, solitary vignette from the Holy Family’s hidden years, we might note that our Lord spent 12 years realizing his vocation, then 18 years learning how to address himself to us oblivious others. This suggests that, on a daily basis, we devote 40 percent of our time learning what we must know, then 60 percent learning what others do not know: the old Socratic priority of the inquisitive over the declarative. Perhaps most pastoral problems are amenable only to a listening ear.

So when did our Lord learn what it was like to be helpless and despairing in a tiny, storm-tossed boat? If he already knew it, that awful night on the lake, how could he have so blithely chided, “ye of little faith”? United with his Father, how could he have known that sense of shattering, gibbering Terror? Terror is a physiological reaction: the acrophobe, frozen on a narrow ledge; the claustrophobe, wedged deep in a dark cave; the mother, hysterical with her bleeding infant.

Given the constant, imminent presence of his Divine Father, our Lord might never have experienced physiological despair, until he began sweating blood in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:43). That one last lesson might have killed him, had not an angel intervened to strengthen him through it. As the author of Hebrews puts it (5:8), “He, Son though he was, had to learn obedience from the things that he suffered.” This does not imply that Our Lord did not fully understand and freely consent to the Passion. But there can be a big difference between understanding pain and experiencing it—between consenting to have a spike hammered through the ulnar nerve in one’s wrist, and lying there freely and purposefully while it happens. Consenting through that would indeed be a lesson in obedience.

  1. In Ratzinger and von Balthasar, Mary: The Church at the Source, San Francisco: Ignatius Press (2011). 
  2. See, for example, “Neurodevelopmental Effects of Early Deprivation …,” Seth D. Pollak et al., 2010), at
  3. This discussion has its roots in a talk by sainted pediatrician-theologian Dr. Herbert Ratner, “The Natural Institution of the Family,” delivered at the Tenth Convention of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, Los Angeles, September 26, 1987; later published in The Catholic Church’s Message to United States Citizens of the Twenty-First Century, Paul L. Williams, ed., Pittston, Pennsylvania: Northeast Books (1988), 154–68. 
Joseph Keith Woodard, PhD About Joseph Keith Woodard, PhD

Joseph Keith Woodard, PhD, is a Citizenship Judge in Calgary, Canada. He earned degrees at the University of Alberta, Dalhousie University, St. John's College, and Claremont Graduate School. He taught at too many universities to mention here; he was the religion editor at Western Report and Calgary Herald; and he has one wife, three sons, and seven daughters.


  1. Avatar Sean P Doyle says:

    Compelling, thought provoking article!

  2. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    ” It is a tragedy of the first order, that our culture has drifted into treating infants as animal commodities, and families as malleable contracts, just at the moment that neurophysiology and developmental psychology begins to apprehend their wonder.”

    Might the tragedy be rather that many religious leaders do not comprehend the complexity of human development? Family as a lived experience does not fit a tight logical definition. The mystery of family love does not always fit empirical descriptions. Jesus family is full of mystery as are all human families!

  3. Avatar Jim Foley says:

    This is very much a 21st century re-reading of the biblical text. I doubt if Luke could have understood it. Luke’s infancy narrative is clearly didactic. It is only from Mary that he could have learned about this three-day sojourn as well as the earlier meeting with Simeon and Anna. Significantly both these stories take place in the Temple and both relate to conformance with the Jewish Law. At puberty a Jewish male became subject to the Law and had to fast on the Day of Atonement. This is a key rite of passage in the Jewish religion.

    In Luke we have a clear identification of Jesus with the Temple. The Jewish Temple was seen as God’s abode on earth. In both these stories the key point is the Holy One of God visiting his sanctuary. Luke has a higher Christology than is often granted. Jesus does not become God gradually over time. He is recognized as the God Messiah in the Temple as an infant and he speaks to his parents with sovereign authority after they rebuke him for having them search for him over three days. Jesus must be about his Father’s business and they have to understand that this completely outweighs their parental rights. Jesus is described as then returning to them in obedience, but he does this because of his Father’s will that his ministry not begin until the appointed time. Later we will learn that Jesus’ own body is the new Temple and the old Temple is fated for total destruction. This is the lesson that Luke is anxious to teach.

    • Avatar Joseph Keith Woodard says:

      I did not say Jesus became God “gradually over time.” I stated repeatedly that he was always God united with his Father. I submit myself to the Christology of the councils. So, if Jesus was “fully God and fully Man,” he must have become human gradually over time, because that’s entailed by being fully human. Any talk of his parents “rebuking” him or he them, seems mere interpretation–and possibly scandalous. The Gospel transcends even St. Lukes intent. The Holy Spirit gives us an EVENT, a FACT, and we want to look that fact in the face. So, what indeed does St. Paul mean, when he says, “He, Son though he was, had to learn obedience from the things he suffered”? .

  4. Avatar Ted Heywood says:

    This seems to have a realistic combination of what we know clinically about child/adult development and infinite divine knowledge. It has ‘common sense’ applied all through it. How else, at this stage of our understanding, to make sense out of the cryptic commentary about this window into the Holy Family’s private life. We will certainly never truly understand what it was like to be the only combination God/Man in human history, going backwards and forwards, developing over time. Any commentary around Christ ‘dissing’ his parents in any way or they being angry with him just don’t make it.

  5. Oct. 21st…my question has always been: how did Joseph and Mary lose Jesus in the first place. He was their cherished Son – they knew He was unique since Mary conceived of the Holy Spirit and not man; true, they were with friends and family but my parents always made sure where we children were when leaving a place; if we were going with a family member or friend, they would make sure we were actually with them before they would leave. Why didn’t Joseph and Mary make sure Jesus was with family members or friends?

  6. Far from being ‘troubling’, this 5th Joyful Mystery has always been one of the most deeply reassuring & helpful readings in the whole New Testament to me. Every single family has to deal with situations like this; every parent can relate to not understanding their child at some point; every child knows what it’s like to have to launch out on his own & still love & respect his parents. For heaven’s sake, I’m unsure where all the ‘troubling’ aspects of your reading of this passage come from, for heaven’s sake. It’s all pretty obvious really. If the Synod Fathers want to say something ‘relevant’ to current family situations, they could just start here.

  7. “he has one wife” …a golden biographical detail.

  8. Avatar Peggy Gibson says:

    Thank you so much for this meditation on what it means for our Lord to have grown “in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favour”. The author’s incorporation of the relatively new discipline of developmental science into our understanding of Christ rings true. I am reminded of Newman’s criteria for development of Christian Doctrine; the first three of the seven ‘notes’ ring out loud and clear. First, the preservation of type: Jesus’ sinlessness is clearly preserved by seeing him as a typical of 12 year old boys in assuming his parents knew where he was. Secondly, the preservation of the past: Jesus observes the Fourth Commandment fully, he is with his Heavenly Father and does not plan Mary and Joseph’s distress. Thirdly, the assimilation of new knowledge: that one of the developmental tasks of even a sinless human is bridging the gap between individual perceptions of a situation. The last reality- that not all disparate perceptions are the result of sin, but can be opportunities for growth is very helpful in shaping our own families in the likeness of the Holy Family. Again, thank you.


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