“Did you not know?” Jesus asks Mary, his anxious mother, in what is the only story in the Christian New Testament about the childhood of Jesus. He is twelve years old. He is found in the Temple at Jerusalem among the doctors of the Law “listening and asking questions”, and “all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers”.
It is an epiphany, a making known of the idea that there are things that are wanted to be known. It is captured wonderfully in this somewhat rhetorical question by Jesus. “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” or as the King James version wonderfully puts it, following Tyndale, “Wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?” The Old English word, “wist” echoes the Germanic influences on English (gewissen) and remains with us in such words as wit, wise, and wisdom. In the Christian understanding, the story reveals Jesus as the Divine Teacher and the Human Student. In other words, this story is an essential feature of the epiphany and shows us the radical idea of epiphany as education. It is about our response to what is presented to us to be known.
We are in this story as teachers and students, as learners all really. Teachers are not teachers if they are not also learners. Something profound is being shown to us about our humanity and in intriguing ways and which ultimately pertains to education. Education is about the making known of certain ideas which we only grasp by the activity of knowing in us. “Knowledge is intermediate between the knower and the known, because it is the activity of the knowner concerning the known”, as was anciently understood. I want to emphasize the idea of learning as activity and I want to focus on the necessity of education.
For thousands of years of human civilisation, once you learned to speak you entered into the adult world as a little adult. No longer an infant, one who is unable to speak, you were part of the adult world through speech. What this story reminds us of is another development at once ancient and also modern. It is the idea of another intermediary stage of human development through learning, specifically through learning how to read. In this case, reading is about reading the Law, the Torah. This story is about the transition from childhood to adulthood in the spiritual culture of Israel. In Jewish terms it correlates with the traditions of bar mitzvah signalling that transition to adult duties and responsibilities as grounded in an understanding of the Law given to Israel by God through Moses. It marks maturity, a growing up through learning and accepting responsibility with respect to what you know.
In modern times, meaning in the last five hundred years or so, this idea is associated with schools, with places of learning ultimately resulting in public education. It belongs to the history of schools both public and independent or private. It marks another kind of transition to the adult world largely through learning how to read.
Most of you are teenagers. That is a very recent term. First used in 1913 with respect to Sunday School curricula, it really only came into vogue beginning in 1940. Google n-grams show how the word has taken off and soared in use throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries reaching perhaps a kind of plateau in 2019. Teenagers have, of course, become a market commodity, targeted by companies in terms of bling and digital devices and by a large segment of the therapeutic culture. Teenagers are largely a modern invention, for good or for ill. But the same point obtains: the idea of learning in terms of growing up and maturing. This is the counter to the culture of self-obsession and teenage angst, the counter to the culture of arrested adolescence.
Education as epiphany is about growing up into maturity that connects us in responsible ways with one another. We are responsible for what we learn and know. It is never simply personal and is never mere self-interest. It belongs to our being part of a community of learners and to the idea of public service and commitment to our common life.
Thus, this story is one of two biblical stories represented in the stained-glass windows of the Chapel. It is seen in the Buckle window in the centre of the nave which depicts Jesus in terms of the conclusion of Luke’s account. Jesus returns with Mary and Joseph to Nazareth where Luke says, “Jesus increased in wisdom, and stature, and in favour with God and man.” It is a lovely phrase which is included in the Buckle window. It captures that idea of service as arising from education and learning. It belongs to the epiphany idea of education, the idea that there are things that are wanted to be known and which require our activity as knowers, as learners. Epiphany is education.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, English & ToK teacherChair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy