This intriguing Gospel story was read in Chapel this week. It has a special relevance to our School and its history. There was once both the school and the university on this campus; the School founded in 1788 and the University of King’s College in 1789. Edgehill Church School for Girls was founded later in 1891 and in 1976 amalgamated with King’s Collegiate School to become King’s-Edgehill. But what about the University? In 1920, just after the devastations of the First World War and after the Spanish Flu epidemic, there was a fire and the main dorm burnt down. The University was forced to relocate to Halifax where it has been since 1923. So, what does this have to do with Luke’s story about Jesus at the age of 12 being found in the Temple at Jerusalem?
The story has influenced the educational project of both School and College. It is one of the few Scriptural stories represented in the stained-glass windows of the Chapels of both the School and the College. Why? Because of what the story signifies about education. In our Chapel, the last part of the story is depicted in the central window in the nave on the quad side. It is about Jesus stepping into the life of public service. In the College Chapel, the first part of the story of Jesus being in the midst of the doctors both hearing them and asking them questions is the central icon in the window above the altar; the emphasis is on teaching and learning. These are images that give us pause to reflect about the purpose of education, about teaching and learning and about service Deo Legi Regi Gregi, for God, the Law, the King and the people, the motto of the School and the College.
This story is an Epiphany on several different levels and one in which we are very much a part of its meaning, again on several different levels. The main Epiphany in the Christian understanding is Jesus as human student, on the one hand, and divine teacher, on the other hand. But it also makes known a central feature of education, namely, the seeking or desire to learn; in short, the love of learning. In the story, there are four references to the idea of seeking, the idea of wanting to know. Without that there can be no learning. What Jesus says here to Mary is particularly instructive. It is captured in the rhetorical question, a question which presupposes the answer, “Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?” meaning the heavenly Father. It highlights the making known of the purpose of the Incarnation. Human redemption is about learning what God seeks for us.
The story is also a kind of Epiphany for us as well both in terms of the love of learning which it emphasizes but also about growing up into maturity and into the life of service towards and with one another. This is the only story in the canonical Scriptures that deals with the boyhood of Jesus. We have in Matthew and Luke the infancy narratives but only Luke gives us this brief but powerful story about Jesus at the age of 12. A few students here at the School are not yet 12 years old; a greater number who are 12; and many, many more students and faculty who all were once 12 years old. In that sense, we are all in this story.
What is perhaps surprising and challenging to us is that this story is really Jesus’ bar mitzvah, to put it in a Jewish context. It marks the transition from boyhood to adulthood which is about being accountable and taking responsibility for oneself in relation to others. Here is Jesus as a pre-teen, we might think, but it is really about him stepping into adulthood. ‘Teenagerism’ is a much later invention of the twentieth century. Part of education is about growing up into a more mature understanding and sense of responsibility; it is not about remaining stuck in a kind of arrested adolescence.
Jesus here is the human student in the midst of the teachers or doctors of the Law in the Temple, a place of worship and learning. They really go together. And learning here is not about information or technical know-how. It is about understanding and wisdom. That is what we are given to see in the exchange between Jesus and the learned doctors of the Law. This reminds us that there are different ways of knowing and that one way does not eclipse or negate other ways. It is more a matter of their complementarity.
But Jesus here is also the divine teacher who makes known to us the purposes of God, the “business” of his heavenly Father. This points us to the idea that there are things to be known that have to do with meaning and purpose. There can be no learning without teaching. The idea is that there are things to be learned. In a way, this story speaks to us about the love of learning. It suggests that this is crucial to what it means to be human.
This challenges the ‘catastrophism’ of our times where everything is seen as falling apart and breaking down and leads to the unfortunate consequence of a kind of despairing hedonism, a retreat into immediate pleasures and pursuits because there is nothing to live for that is worth doing. It is a form of nihilism which has despaired of learning and denies the love of learning as the crucial element in education. Yet there are countless examples in the history of thought of things that have been learned and sought even in dark and difficult times. Plato turns to philosophy out of a despair of Athenian politics. Boethius writes his great treatise “The Consolation of Philosophy” while in prison awaiting execution on trumped-up charges. Dante begins his “Divine Comedy” in the midst of the selva oscura, the dark wood of human confusion and despair, having been exiled from his beloved Florence. There he found, he says, in and through the experience of what he also calls the selva selvaggia, the savage wood, “a great good”. That is the radical point of the educational endeavour that makes it well worth our commitment and discipline.
The images of Jesus being found in the Temple seek to awaken in us that love of learning. It is an end in itself and not just a means to our own projects and fancies. And it happens in all manner of dark and difficult times.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, Head of English & ToK teacherChair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy