Twelve

from cartoon-excellence.com. By Walt Disney Pictures.

from cartoon-excellence.com. By Walt Disney Pictures.

Originally written as a homily on January 20, 2013, for the Feast of the Sto. Nino.
by Fr. Jet Villarin, SJ

Thinking that he was in the caravan, they journeyed for a day and looked for him among their relatives and acquaintances, but not finding him, they returned to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions, and all who heard him were astounded at his understanding and his answers.

In the movie “The Incredibles”, even the children (Violet, Dash, and Jack-Jack) have superpowers. Their parents (Bob and Helen) are called “supers” because, well, they have super strength and super elasticity, respectively. The eldest, Violet, can turn invisible and create a force shield around herself and those around her. Dash has super-speed. And the infant Jack-Jack (who must have been christened by a Filipino named Jun-Jun or Ting-ting or Mai-mai) has no power yet to show at the beginning of the story.

Somehow, these children come to mind when I read the Gospel story for today’s feast of the Sto Nino. The finding-in-the-temple story of a seemingly precocious 12-year old Jesus has often led me to wonder if this kid was a “super” even at that age, and if that was shown early on as when he was found in the company of super-religious and learned men in the temple.

Actually, I don’t think he was an “incredible” or at least he didn’t really show superpowers in the beginning (he didn’t show any even at the “end”), the kind of powers we sometimes wish the Sto Nino would wield over our lives. Surely he was special but I don’t think his thinking was all that grown-up at twelve. The scripture tells us that he had yet to grow “in wisdom and age and favor before God and man.” And if I may add, before his parents too.

When his mother tells him that they had been worried sick, looking for him for three days, he says, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” In other words, why were you looking for me “with great anxiety?” Did you not realize that I must be about my Father’s work? That must have stung, like it stings parents every time to realize their children would eventually need to stand on their own someday and be weaned off them.

But at twelve? They his parents could not understand. And what was this Father’s work that he needed to be going about anyway? Could that not wait till he was 18?

Well, obviously, it could not. Even at twelve, the Father’s work was already cut out for him. We gather from the story that the Father’s work at that point in his life consisted simply in this: (a) being with the teachers in the temple, (b) listening to them, (c) asking them questions, (d) understanding their answers, and (e) answering their answers. The work was something even twelve year olds (including those without superpowers) could do.

I remember warning a speaker once who was about to talk on leadership to a group of grade schoolers that the most difficult questions are the ones asked by children. True enough, in the open forum, one girl stood up to tell him how difficult and discouraging it was to be class president because they her classmates were always fighting. Almost in tears, she asked, why would she even bother staying on as president? Even theological questions by children can be hard: when my nephew was a toddler, he asked me, why is God invisible?

Interestingly, in this Year of Faith, the Father’s work for the twelve-year-old Jesus could just as well be meant for a 2000-year-old disciple, the Church. The teachers in the temples of our time are to be found in all sorts of places these days, many of them not even real places. You will find teachers and temples not just in classrooms or churches, but also in the cloud. The high priests of modernity (or post-modernity) and secularity have used these nebulous repositories of information to multiply even further the many autonomous voices already competing for our allegiance today.

We the Church, the people of God, can be overwhelmed and confused by all the creeds that are trending and seeding these clouds of knowing. It would be tempting to just withdraw to the caravan and go home. It would be easy to engage by just imposing orthodoxy and invoking authority. That would be the safe thing to do, but would that be going about the work of the Father?

At the end of the movie, we get to discover the power of Jack-Jack. When the baby is kidnapped by the villain Syndrome, we see the child capable of shape-shifting and breathing fire like a dragon.

We see no such powers in the Sto Nino, even when he was twelve. If he throws flames, they are only like tongues of fire burning inside us, quickening our lives when he stays behind to listen to us, asking us hard questions and yet understanding us, and in the end, giving us answers to things we thought were already answered.

About Jet Villarin, SJ

Fr. Jet is a Filipino Jesuit priest and scientist, who is the university president of Ateneo de Manila University. He received the National Outstanding Young Scientist award in 2000, and the Outstanding Book Award for “Disturbing Climate” in 2002. He is also an active member of several local and international environment and climate committees, such as the United Nations’ Consultative Group of Experts for Developing Countries, and the Inter-Agency Committee on Climate Change, among others.

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