The Childhood of Jesus
On 2 February the liturgical calendar celebrates a scene from early in Jesus’s life, when he was presented in the Temple and was prophetically greeted by Anna and Simeon. This a feast-day that has several different names: the Purification of the Blessed Virgin (pre-Reformation); the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (Common Worship); and Candlemas (a popular name from before the Norman Conquest). Everyone came to the church with a lighted candle, the light-filled nave dramatically enacting Simeon’s words that the child would be ‘a light to lighten the gentiles’. And so the service got its everyday name: in a world of firelight and the guttering flame of perhaps a single precious candle, it was only at the Mass of Candles that ordinary people would see an enclosed space so wonderfully illuminated.
There is only one other story about Jesus’s childhood before we come to his baptism and ministry, and that is the account of his visit to the Temple in Jerusalem with Mary and Joseph when he was twelve years old and became so absorbed in debating with the teachers that he was left behind when the group that he and his parents were travelling with set off on the journey back to Nazareth. The purpose of the story is to show that Jesus had an extraordinary familiarity with and curiosity about his faith to a level way beyond his years, and — significantly — it is in his reply to Mary that he first claims God as his Father and looks forward to a divine ministry.
It is only Luke’s gospel that has these two childhood stories, and both relate to Jewish religious practice. It is as if the author, with gentile Christians in mind as his audience, wished to make clear that Jesus had indeed been brought up in the great Jewish faith, out of which the new message grows. Matthew is the only other gospel dealing with Jesus’s lifetime beginnings. But this text presents Jesus’s Messiah-ship through a detailed genealogy and demonstration of prophesy-fulfilment, requiring an embedded knowledge of Jewish scriptures such as Luke’s audience would be unlikely to have. Tellingly, it is Luke, in his account of the Presentation, who foretells the outreach to the gentiles through the words of Simeon.
So, in historical terms, what is going on in this second childhood story? That Jesus was twelve years old indicates that he was at the point of accepting his responsibilities as an adult in the Jewish faith, marked by a ceremony in the local synagogue. Preparation for it involved studying, as it still does for the bar-mitzvah. Perhaps the visit to Jerusalem for Passover was a further marker of this stage in Jesus’s life: it was, after all, a long and potentially dangerous journey south from Galilee (hence the need to travel in a group), so it would be a special event for a family of modest means with children to consider. Their primary destination, the Temple, was the grandiose renovation and enlargement recently carried out by Herod the Great in a bid for popularity. The learned teachers were probably in an outer courtyard where, following the Passover, they made themselves available for public discourse and teaching.
Luke’s account is full of human touches, and this attracted the great Cistercian abbot, Ailred of Rievaulx, In the early 1160s he wrote a short and engaging spiritual treatise on it, entitled Jesus as a Boy of Twelve (although of course the whole thing was in Latin). It’s available in translation.