Some years ago a dear friend gave me an icon of St. Joseph and the Christ Child. We were at the time young fathers. I remember that when I first looked at it I stopped breathing for a second. I had many times seen icons of the Blessed Mother and the Infant Jesus. This was different. To see the Child Jesus with his cheek pressed close to that of his earthly father’s spoke of an intimacy of father and child that reached into my soul. I could not take my eyes off of that gossamer border demarcating two faces touching, portraying the love of a son leaning into the warmth of his father. I wondered what the icon writer was praying when he crafted such a window to gaze upon God.
Praying through that icon from time to time has been very rich. Sometimes I am Joseph, the father. I cannot help but ponder the responsibility he obediently embraced to be a model of faithfulness to the boy Jesus. The story of the twelve year old Jesus in the temple begins with the words, “Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover.” Every year. This, then, was the twelfth time since Jesus was born and in that regularity we discover a faithful Jewish family that must have formed Jesus’ heart and soul. One wonders when he entered Jerusalem for the last time on this earth if Jesus recalled those times as a boy. I think of my own sons, one born on this very day of the year, and yes my daughter too, and regularly pray that they may know the gift of God’s embrace deep within. I treasure every moment of past and present when my cheek touched theirs and does again even through the electrons of a text message.
Sometimes I am the child in the icon. I give thanks for my formation in Christian faith by my own father and these days find that I, when praying for the repose of the soul of both of my parents, give thanks for all with which they gifted me. I will never forget a moment as a boy, and I do believe I was twelve years old, when I was watching a television program concerning nuclear annihilation. As I remember it the statement was made in the show that all that might survive would be colonies of ants with their complex social structures, or perhaps just cockroaches which were especially impervious to radiation. I went outside to find my father planting a tree and told him of my fear and concern. He looked at me a moment and said, “I understand why that would bother you, but what I want you to remember is that God came to us as a human being, not an insect.” I found strength there. I walked away comforted and I know now my cheek and his were pressed close.
The punch line of the account in Luke of the boy Jesus in the temple and his parent’s frantic searching for him is when he says his first recorded words, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Jesus’ growing maturity is shown here as he claims his own identity. He even recognizes that his relationship with God supersedes all relationships, including that of family. This is a hard teaching. I dare to pray, “God, may my children, the ones for whom I would search to the end of the earth, love you more than they love me.” Yet I also pray, “God, may they in my love, find your love.”