James Spencer Northcote was a convert to Catholicism, having been a married Anglican minister. At the death of his wife, also a convert, he entered the Catholic priesthood and eventually became president of St. Mary’s College at Oscott. Between the years 1856 and 1860 he gave a series of lectures to refute the Protestant claim that, according to the Bible, the Blessed Virgin Mary is nothing but an ordinary woman. They were later published, and furnish some of the best rebuttals in print against those who attack Catholic devotion to our Beloved Mother Mary. We present them in a slightly condensed form.
And His parents were wont to go every year to Jerusalem at the Feast of the Passover. And when He was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem according to the custom of the feast. And after they had fulfilled the days, when they were returning, the Boy Jesus remained in Jerusalem, and His parents did not know it. But thinking that He was in the caravan, they had come a day’s journey before it occurred to them to look for Him among their relatives and acquaintances. And not finding Him, they returned to Jerusalem in search of Him.
And it came to pass after three days, that they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions. And all who were listening to Him were amazed at His understanding and His answers. And when they saw Him, they were astonished. And His Mother said to Him, "Son, why hast Thou done so to us? Behold, Thy father and I have been seeking Thee sorrowing."
And He said to them, "How is it that you sought Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father's business?" And they did not understand the word that He spoke to them.
And He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them; and His Mother kept all these things carefully in Her Heart. And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and grace before God and men (Luke 2: 41-52).
The prophecies of Holy Simeon, both as to the contradictions which awaited the Infant Jesus and the sword which should pierce the Mother's soul, soon received their first fulfillment. An Angel of the Lord appeared in sleep to St. Joseph, bidding him arise and take the Child and His Mother and flee into Egypt, because Herod would seek the Child to destroy Him. "Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremias the prophet, 'A voice in Rama was heard, lamentation and great mourning; Rachel bewailing her children and she would not be comforted, because they are not'." (Matt. 2: 17, 18) And though Mary's Child was saved, yet we may be sure that this Mother Most Amiable could not have heard without the deepest emotion of the sufferings of so many other parents, of whose cruel bereavement Her own Infant had been the innocent occasion. If we were endeavoring to set before you a complete history of our Blessed Lady, it would be necessary that we should here inquire how far the sorrow of Her tender sympathizing Heart at the thought of these bereaved mothers was mitigated by any knowledge She may have had that the massacre of the Holy Innocents had been to themselves at least an exceeding great gain, because Her Divine Son, for Whom their lives had been sacrificed, could not fail to give them an abundant recompense. This, however, as well as many other interesting questions connected with the history of our Blessed Lady's thoughts and feelings during this period of Her Son’s life cannot enter into our present plan, which, as I have so often reminded you, only allows me to speak of those incidents in the Gospel in which some word or deed of Mary, or of others having reference to Her, seems to have an important bearing on the honor in which Catholics hold Her.
For the same reason, I forebear to enter upon any examination of the details of the Flight into Egypt, or of the sojourn of the Holy Family in that heathen land, though much might be said upon the trial of Mary’s faith and the perfection of Her obedience in this hasty flight and exile, commanded by a messenger from Heaven to shield a Divine Infant from the jealous hatred of a tyrant king, His creature.
On their return to Nazareth after the death of Herod, we read that "the Child grew and waxed strong, full of wisdom; and the grace of God was with Him." He was "full of wisdom" because He was Wisdom itself, the Eternal Wisdom of the Father; "the true light which enlighteneth every man that cometh into this world;" and yet the same Evangelist presently adds, "Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and grace with God and men"—that is to say, He manifested His wisdom more and more daily, in proportion to His material growth and age, that so in all things He might be seen to be "like as we are, only without sin" (Hebr. 4: 15). He was full of wisdom as a Child, as a man, and at all times; but in the age of childhood He manifested Himself as a perfect child, and in man-hood as a perfect man. Once however, during the days of His Youth, He made a manifestation of Wisdom beyond His years, under circumstances which must be examined more carefully because of the share His Mother had in them.
We read that Joseph and Mary "went every year to Jerusalem, at the solemn day of the pasch." Such was their faith and obedience, their humility and simplicity, that though conscious to themselves that Christ, the true Pasch, was now come and in their own keeping, nevertheless they would not dispense themselves from the obligation of still observing the old figures of the Law, which "is never able... to perfect those who draw near" (Hebr. 10: 1). They went therefore to the Holy City as often as the Law required, in company with their pious neighbors, differing in nothing outwardly from the rest, but both themselves and the Divine Child mixing in familiar conversation with those around them, "hid in the deep disguise of common life."
Nothing, perhaps, in the whole range of the Gospel history is more truly wonderful to a thoughtful mind than this complete annihilation before the eyes of men of the Divinity of Jesus during the period of His Infancy, and indeed, up to the moment of His manifestation to Israel by the preaching and miracles of His public ministry. St. John the Baptist had from the first lived apart from men; he was "in the deserts," and he led the life of an ascetic and a recluse; "he had his garment of camels' hair, and a leather girdle about his loins, and his meat was locusts and wild honey." Thus he was always distinguished from the rest of mankind; the way was smoothed for him, as it were, and for the opening of his special mission as the forerunner of Christ, by the reverence and awe with which this austere mode of life invested him, in public opinion, even before he had begun to speak. But it is clear from a number of incidental notices in the Gospels that in our Blessed Lord there was an entire absence of anything of this kind. When He had become famous, people asked one another who He was and whence He came. "How came this man by this wisdom and miracles? Is not this the carpenter's Son? Is not His Mother called Mary? And His brethren and sisters, are they not all with us? Whence, therefore, hath He all these things?" (Matt. 13: 56) Nay, have we not known Him working Himself at a common trade? "Is not this the carpenter, the Son of Mary?" (Mark 6: 3) They tried to call to mind whether He had ever been at school or not: "How doth this Man know letters, having never learned?" (John 7: 15) He had been brought up, so far as they knew, like other boys of His age and circumstances. Even after His public ministry had begun, they found Him eating and drinking like other men, and they were scandalized at it; it seemed so inconsistent with the claims of a higher kind, set forth in His teachings and by the miraculous cures which He wrought. However, up to the age of thirty, there was not even so much as this; there was scarcely a single claim to distinguish Him. He was (if I may so speak) buried and lost sight of in the crowd. And this truth is brought home to us in a very striking manner by the incident we have now to consider.
And when Jesus was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem according to the custom of the feast. And after they had fulfilled the days, when they were returning, the Boy Jesus remained in Jerusalem, and His parents did not know it. But thinking that He was in the caravan, they had come a day's journey before it occurred to them to look for Him among their relatives and acquaintances. And not finding Him, they returned to Jerusalem in search of Him.
What a wonderful picture of unpretending simplicity! The Mother of the Son of God, and His foster-father, conscious of the treasure they possess, yet so far from looking upon that treasure as their own exclusive property and assuming to themselves any superiority over others in consequence of the dignity which had been conferred upon them, that they simply accept the charge and fulfill its duties, with care indeed and diligence, but without scrupulosity, allowing the Holy Child a certain liberty and independence of action at one time, and interfering with it at another, just as any prudent and religious-minded parent might have done to his own son under similar circumstances! It is probable that Joseph and Mary began their homeward journey in different groups of the caravan; if, as Venerable Bede tells us, men and women used to travel separately on these occasions, and the children would go indifferently with either. Each then might naturally have supposed that Jesus was with the other, and we can easily account for their not having discovered their loss until the evening. They had already gone a day's journey from Jerusalem; but now they retrace their steps with anxious haste, and we may suppose that they arrived in the Holy City the following afternoon. Then on the morning of the third day "they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions. And all who were listening to Him were amazed at His understanding and His answers. And when they saw Him, they were astonished. And His Mother said to Him, 'Son, why hast Thou done so to us? Behold, Thy father and I have been seeking Thee sorrowing'."
We may observe here the extreme naturalness of the narrative, so far as Mary is concerned. First, both Her spouse and Herself wonder at what they see; it is so unlike anything they had observed in Jesus before, that they were not prepared for so sudden a manifestation of the hidden treasures of His wisdom, and they are wrapt in admiration. Nevertheless Mary—for She is His Mother, and it belongs to Her therefore more strictly than to St. Joseph to be the first to speak; and doubtless also Her greater love would prompt Her to speak more quickly—Mary immediately addresses to Him words of loving expostulation which serve to illustrate and establish beyond all question the true character of the relation which had hitherto existed between them. It is clear that Mary had been accustomed to exercise over Him the full authority of a parent over her child; and though His answer at this moment has been misunderstood by some as intended to call that authority in question, or at least to set it aside for the future, yet His obedience up to the present time, renewed as it was after this momentary interruption, and prolonged through nearly twenty years, sets a solemn seal of consecration upon it, and illumines it with a flood of glory which can hardly be exaggerated.
The words of Mary are the voice of nature, and the answer of Jesus may have been designed to raise Her mind and heart to the Supernatural; but there was no fault in the one, and therefore there could be no blame in the other. Mary spoke the language of the purest maternal love and solicitude to a Child Who, though Divine, had always been subject to Her, and Who had given Her rights over Himself. He had given Her the right to expostulate with Him, by His uniform docility and dutiful obedience up to the present moment; and She humbly asks the cause of this strange interruption of His usual course of conduct. I say, She asks humbly, for Her humility and prudence are sufficiently attested by the way She speaks of Her spouse, St. Joseph. She names him first, and calls him the father of Jesus, as of course he was in affection and care and anxiety, and as head of the household, providing for all their material wants. But those who heard him so called, would of course understand much more than this, and She was not unwilling that they should, because the time was not yet come for the revelation of the mystery. She speaks then in the name of both, because as both had shared the joy of His presence, and the privilege of His obedience, so both had now sorrowed together at His loss, and wondered at its cause.
"And Jesus said to them, 'How is it that you sought Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father's business?' And they did not understand the word that He spoke to them." These words acquire a special value from the consideration that they are the very first words of our Divine Master which have been preserved for us, and we must not be surprised if they are mysterious, and require thought and care for their interpretation. No doubt the first impression which they convey to some minds, seems unfavorable to our Blessed Lady. Some feel that they bear upon the face of them something of the tone of a rebuke addressed to Her; yet when we come to examine them more closely in connection with the circumstances under which they are spoken, all are equally forced to acknowledge that there seems to be no place for a rebuke. Was it blameworthy in Mary and Joseph that they should have sought for Jesus when they had lost him? Would it not rather have been a just subject for the severest censure if they had omitted to do so? And how could they have known of His purpose to make a public beginning of His devotion to His Heavenly Father's business at this particular period of His life? We nowhere read that He had told them so, nor had such an intimation been conveyed in the prophetic revelations of the Angels, or of St. Elizabeth, or of holy Simeon, or of any other. What was there then that could have imparted to them this knowledge? Or is there any reason whatever for supposing that they had ever received it? The most diligent study of the written Word has failed to discover the slightest token of such information having been imparted; and yet Jesus speaks as though Mary and Joseph ought to have known.
Such at least has been the ordinary interpretation of His words. It has been suggested however, by a recent writer on the subject (Dublin Review, No. 14, pg. 501), that His meaning may have been no more than this: "How is it that you sought Me among your kinsfolk and acquaintances? Did you think that I would leave you for them? There was but One for Whom I would leave you; it was in His House that you should at once have looked for Me." This interpretation has the merit of great simplicity, and I do not see how any Protestant can reasonably object to it, seeing that it only adds to Our Lord's words a reference to something that has been distinctly recorded in the sacred narrative. It is however, so far as I know, quite new, and it is not easy to understand why the words should have offered any difficulty to our Blessed Lady Herself, as they certainly did, if they were capable of so natural an explanation. It seems more probable that we should understand Our Lord to have spoken darkly, and as in a figure, and that the true sense of His words was hidden, and belonged to some future time, rather than to that in which they were spoken; or it may have been that He spoke thus, in a seemingly sharp tone of reproof, for the same reason as merely human teachers do, when they want to waken special attention to the thing taught.
Mary had enjoyed the blessedness of Her Son's continual presence from the moment of His Birth, but this was not to continue to the end, and He would prepare Her soul at times for the necessary change. By-and-by there was to be another three days' loss, whilst the Body of Jesus lay in the tomb, of which loss this was a shadow and a foretaste; and again before that, there would be yet another and a longer loss (or at least an absence and a separation so continual as almost to amount to a loss), for three years, during the whole period of His public ministry; and it was well that Mary's thoughts should already be trained to rise above Her present appreciation of the merely corporal presence of Her Son, and steadily to contemplate the change in their relations which was hereafter to follow. When He was about to withdraw His visible presence from the world, and to return to His Father in Heaven, He forewarned the Apostles of His coming departure, and consoled and instructed them about it. "A little while and you shall not see Me, and again a little while and you shall see Me, because I go to the Father" (John 16: 16). Was this "little while" during which Mary saw not Jesus, because He was engaged about His Father's business, intended to be Her lesson of instruction in the same subject? We do not know, but at least it seems probable; it was not given even to Mary Herself to know at that time, for we read that "they did not understand the word that He spoke to them."
Some interpreters indeed would fain exclude our Blessed Lady from the compass of this observation, by supposing that the Evangelist spoke either of the doctors and other bystanders, or of St. Joseph only. But either of these suppositions seems to do violence to the sacred text; neither are they supported by any ancient tradition. For the same reasons we should reject another interpretation also, according to which Mary is supposed really to have understood what had been said, but out of humility to have spoken and acted as though She did not understand, so that She might share with Her spouse the reproach of ignorance. It will scarcely be worthwhile, however, to enumerate and examine all the various reasons which have been assigned for our Blessed Lady's not understanding Her Son's words; especially since those who delight in imagining the ignorance or darkness of Her mind only succeed in bringing out all the more strongly the supernatural virtues of Her Heart. Even if we were to grant (only for the sake of argument) that She understood nothing, and that this want of knowledge was a humiliation, yet it is certain that She did not on that account waver in Her faith: "She kept all these things in Her Heart." She was neither curious in inquiring into things hidden from Her, nor rebellious against mysteries She could not comprehend, but She remained always docile, faithful, and obedient; and this trial of Her understanding only increases our estimation of Her humility.
It must be added, however, that Her ignorance could not possibly have been so absolute as some of Her detractors would wish to represent it. For it is impossible to doubt that both Mary, and Joseph too, knew well of Whom Jesus had spoken, and Who was the Father about Whose business He had been engaged; but only that neither of them understood what the particulars of the Divine business were, nor why it had begun so unexpectedly, nor how long it was to last. The circumstances of time and place had not been revealed to Mary, or were now supernaturally obscured from Her sight by the darkness which God permitted to overcloud Her understanding. Spiritual darkness and desolation have ever been one of the trials of God’s Saints, and the greater their sanctity, the sharper ordinarily is their trial. We might have expected, then, that Mary as the Queen of Saints would be specially tried, and this was an hour of sharpest trial to Her; it was as a deep shadow from Mount Calvary suddenly cast upon the heavenly brightness of Nazareth. The sword had come to Her before the Cross had come to Her Son, and it had come from an unexpected quarter, and had pierced with its keenest edge. Jesus Himself will one day cry out to His Heavenly Father in the moment of His greatest agony, "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" But Mary had already been forsaken by Her Divine Son, and when She had sought Him sorrowing, and now Her whole soul was flooded with joy at having found Him, He Himself seems only to drive the sword yet deeper into Her heart, for He seems almost to question Her right to seek for Him. He asks, "How is that You sought Me?" as though He had never belonged to Her, or as though Her whole Heart and soul had not been always wrapped up in Him.
But though trials and crosses be the lot of God's Saints, He does not leave them without consolation, and the consolation is proportioned to the loss. Mary has been tried and humbled; She is now to be comforted and exalted. He Who by His words had seemed but now to have disowned Her, or at least to have claimed for Himself an exemption from Her control by virtue of an obligation laid upon Him by an authority higher than Hers, now in act obeys Her, and obeys Her for nearly twenty years. He goes down with Her to His former home in Nazareth and "is subject" to Her. What are we to think of this? Did He, at Mary's word, suspend His occupation about His Father's business? Or was His Father's business to be carried on for all those years in the humble cottage of Nazareth, and did it consist in Mary's sanctification? And in either case, what a marvelous exaltation of Mary! In the Old Testament it is recorded with wonder that "the sun stood still in the midst of heaven for one day, the Lord obeying the voice of a man" (Jos. 10: 14); but what was this interference with the course of the material creation for a few hours, compared to the suspension of the great work of man's Redemption for eighteen years? We turn then to the other alternative, and believe that Jesus was still "working" (John 5: 17), though in private, and that His main work was in the soul of Mary. And who shall say what mutual converse passed between the soul of the Son and the soul of the Mother during those years of retirement and solitude? Who shall count the profusion of lights and graces She received? Or, measure the height of sanctity to which a soul, so faithful in its correspondence to grace and so admirable in its purity and diligence, must needs have arrived after so long and intimate a converse with the very source and fountain of grace Himself? If Mary, the sister of Lazarus, earned the praises of Christ and received a promise of final perseverance because she sat at His feet, hearing His word, whilst her sister was busy about many things in the service of the same Master (Luke 10: 39), how much more highly honored and abundantly rewarded shall not She be, whose blessed privilege it was during so many years to unite the active and contemplative service of God in their very highest perfection; tending, nursing and feeding Jesus as an Infant, and ministering to all His temporal wants as He grew up, whilst at the same time She "sat at His feet," watching His every word and work, "keeping and pondering them all in Her Heart."
"And He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them." Few and simple words; but they are the summary of ten-elevenths of the life of God upon earth, of thirty out of thirty-three years of the life of Jesus! Stupendous thought! Wonderful fact! Has it no meaning? Had it no consequences? Is it possible that men who profess a most religious reverence for every word that fell from the lips of Jesus, can be altogether indifferent to a word, an act of His which lasted nearly all His life through? That men who find in those questions—"How is it that you sought Me? Did you not know...?"—convincing arguments in disparagement of Her to whom they were addressed, can turn a deaf ear to the panegyric of thirty years' silent obedience to the same "Blessed Woman?" Compare with this mode of handling God's word the comment which St. Bernard makes (Hom. 1 de Laud. Virg.) upon the history we have been considering:
"He was subject to them,"—Who was subject? and to whom? God to man. God, to Whom the angels themselves are subject, Whom principalities and powers obey, God is subject to Mary, and not to Mary only, but to Joseph also for Mary's sake. Admire which you will, and say which is the more admirable of the two, the gracious condescension of the Son, or the excelling dignity of the Mother. Both are stupendous, miraculous. God obeying a woman—humility without example. A woman commanding God—exaltation without parallel. In the Canticle of the Virgins it is celebrated as one of their privileges, that they follow the Lamb whithersoever He goeth: what then shall we say, what praises can suffice, for Her whom the Lamb Himself followeth?
Which of these commentaries on the sacred text commends itself most to your mind, that which is ordinarily in vogue amongst Protestants or that of a Catholic Saint and Doctor of the Church? Surely no reverent mind can hesitate in his choice between them, and no impartial judgment can fail to recognize in this incident in the life of Jesus, a most powerful argument in favor of Catholic doctrine as to the exalted dignity of Mary, and the power She exercised over Her Son. There may be more or less difficulty in the interpretation of particular words or phrases, but the main fact in all its principal circumstances tells most strongly in the direction I have intimated, and the truthfulness of the following summary of it will be generally admitted. The conduct of Jesus towards His Blessed Mother during the first twelve years of His life had been so uniformly docile and obedient, that when once He performed an act without Her knowledge and consent, She forthwith called Him publicly to account for it, using (as any ordinary mother might have done) words which in their plain and natural sense implied some degree of reproof. Jesus gave Her a brief explanation of His conduct, which She did not fully understand; and then immediately returned to His former habit of obedience, which was not again interrupted for a period of eighteen years or more.
Thus one result of this act of our Blessed Lord is to elicit a very marked expression of Mary's authority over Him, and to impress very deeply on our minds the fact of His habitual subjection to Her. If any man seek for a reason which justified (so to speak) this single act of seeming disobedience, Catholic doctrine is at no loss to supply it. "By His thirty years' subjection to 'His parents,' He inculcated most forcibly the ordinary rule of obedience to parents; by remaining behind at Jerusalem, He illustrated the one necessary exception—the obligation of neglecting filial ties where God summons to His service" (Dublin Review, No. 14, p. 501). As St. Ambrose says, "Being about to prescribe to others that he who doth not leave father and mother is not worthy of the Son of God, He Himself is the first to subject Himself to this very sentence; not with the intent of discountenancing those offices of piety which are due to a mother (for it is His own commandment that he who honors not his father or mother should die the death), but because He knows (and desires to teach others) that more is due to the mysteries of His Heavenly Father than to natural affection for His earthly Mother" (In Luc., lib. 6, 36). Had Jesus acquainted Mary and Joseph with His intention before acting, they would at once have humbly acquiesced, and the particular lesson which we have supposed Him to have had in view—a lesson so hard for flesh and blood to learn—viz., that God sometimes calls persons to embrace the religious life even without their parents' consent—would have been altogether lost.
Finally, no Catholic ought to have any difficulty in understanding why Our Lord did not shrink from inflicting this heavy sorrow of the three days' loss upon His Holy Mother. It was needful for Her to suffer like any other, or rather above any other, member of His Mystical Body, in proportion to Her nearness to Him and the degree of Her future glory. "To be deprived of God and not to know why, was a vast furnace of affliction to a soul so ravished with love." It was then a great means of Mary's perfection, and in its measure it has been repeated again and again in the secret histories of other saintly souls. Moreover, on a future occasion, I hope to show you that this is probably the truest account which can be given of the words that were spoken, as well as of the absence itself which occasioned them.
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