Nor are most aspects of our wider Christian Tradition much help in helping us with questions about Christ and teenagers. Again, this is not really surprising. The concept of a teenager is itself a product of modern industrial society and would have meant nothing to most of our ancestors. For almost all Christian history, before adulthood there was previously just childhood, which was itself also rather different from today’s understanding! The change between being a child and an adult came around the age of 12 and 13/14, as we see from traditional rites of passage in many cultures. Yes, of course, there was puberty and other developments associated with teenagers today. Yet teenagers, generally speaking, were not a breed apart, and they merged immediately afterwards into the adult world. As with other contemporary aspects of life, the very concept of a teenager therefore forces us to face up to new issues about what it is to be human and to seek holiness today.
So what does the teenage Christ look like? Is there anything to guide us to an answer? Well, yes: as with other new questions about being human today, we can creatively explore this issue by reflecting prayerfully on human experience in relation to the Bible and Christian tradition as a whole. Whilst we cannot simply read off from them clear rules, we can engage more deeply with teenage life through the spirit of Christ as we have come to know it, through Bible and Christian Tradition. Crucially, as we do so, we may then find that teenagers have something to share with us about God, helping us also to be transformed by the living spirit of Christ, seeing the Bible and Christian Tradition in deeper ways. Let me therefore suggest three ways in which this might be done, related to today’s Gospel story…
Firstly, Becoming. For being a teenager is above all about becoming, isn’t it? – becoming someone unique, even if, as a teenager, we don’t quite know who or what. That, I think, is part of the reason Jesus is separated from his family in today’s Gospel. For, although, as a good Jewish boy, family is important to Jesus, Luke’s Gospel wants to tell us that family is not enough. As elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus distances himself from his family in order that he can respond to his own unique vocation. So it is for us. Teenagers are particularly aware of this. They are typically those most concerned with finding identity. All of us however, whatever age we are, must continue to seek God’s transformation. We must value the call to become what we truly are.
Secondly, Belonging. For finding something, or someone, to belong to is central to the teenage journey. That, I think, is part of why Jesus was found in the Temple in today’s story. For whilst Luke’s Gospel also wants to tell us that belonging to the Temple is not enough, Jesus surely goes there to help work out what really matters: in other words, to work out to what and where he truly belongs. So it is for us. Just think of those teenagers who are drawn today into terrorism, on the one hand, or into saving others, on the other hand. They need to belong. Each of us, not least teenagers, needs to discover where we truly belong, and where it is truly life-giving to belong.
Thirdly, after Becoming, and Belonging, comes Believing. For being a teenager usually involves a search to find out what is really meaningful: what is authentic, not just handed down by adults; and what is really truthful, which adults are not always. That, I think, is why we are told in today’s Gospel that ‘His mother treasured all these things in her heart’, and that ‘Jesus increased in wisdom and in years’. For whilst Luke is not giving us a neat set of beliefs, he is indicating that we grow and mature best when we find true wisdom to take into our hearts and minds to live by. So it is for us. Teenagers can again show us the way, as they eagerly seek out ideas, music and people to live by. We too need to continue to be awake to love and truth, so that we may ourselves treasure it and grow in wisdom and years.
To summarise, I suspect that, rather than distancing ourselves from teenagers - never mind despising or feeling threatened by them – adults might do well to spend more time with teenagers and value them. For, as images of Christ, teenagers remind us that all our life journeys are intended to be about Becoming, Belonging and Believing, with authenticity, truthfulness, energy and love. As an adult, I don’t know that I am always so good with all of that. Maybe I need to spend more time with the teenage Christ? What about you?
My guess is that many of us have understandable difficulty with teenagers because some certainly can be difficult. They can certainly be unpredictable, just like Jesus in today’s Gospel story. They can also be full of angst and awkwardness, challenge and confusion. Yes indeed, but, you know, don’t most of us go through similar emotions sometime in our lives? Even after teenage years, do all those things also really go away? Do you think that perhaps part of adults’ problems with teenagers is that they all too often remind us of what we would rather ignore or pretend we have under control? If so, perhaps discovering Christ in the teenager is actually a way forward.
Quite a bit of research recently in the USA has tried to identify why (up to 60%) of Christian high school students walk away from their faith with some never returning. That is a statistic which really ought to make us think and act differently. Fortunately some have what has been called ‘sticky faith’, which helps them grow in their Christian journey. So what makes the difference? There is no simple answer. The following factors are common however to those who walk away: firstly, having a shallow belief system; secondly, being brought up with faith that has no room for doubt; thirdly, being part of an exclusive faith; and, fourthly, where they have no proper answers to intelligent criticism, especially where it is based on science and enquiry. In contrast, the following factors seem to be common to students with ‘sticky faith’: firstly that they raised in a faith culture which emphasises relationship with Christ rather than adherence to a set of rules; secondly, that they are surrounded by people of all ages who help to support, mentor and encourage them; and thirdly, and most importantly, that they have a parent, or close family member, who will walk with them in the struggles of faith and doubt. Teenagers, its seems, like the rest of us, do not need to be told what to do or believe. They will work it out, if we let them and are there for them, and if we give them wriggle and wrestling room. May we, then like our Christian teenagers, have the courage to share the teenage Christ’s journey: Becoming what God wants us to be; Belonging to one another more truly; and Believing with deeper faith and understanding. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.
by Jon Inkpin, Christmas 1 Year C, 27 December 2015