Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
We’ve celebrated Easter Sunday, the observance of the Lord’s Resurrection, as early as March 22. No earlier date is permitted since, ecclesiastically, the vernal equinox is fixed on March 21. Cycles are part of the rhythm of life. Jesus himself observed them. 

Recall how at Passover time Jesus and his family observed the ritual of going to temple. St. Luke tells us, “Each year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, and when he was twelve years old, they went up according to festival custom” (Lk 2:41). Religious rituals were not the only cycle of life Jesus experienced. 

As I reflected last Saturday with the young men and women who were about to be confirmed — it was also the Solemnity of St. Joseph at which we read the narrative of Jesus in the temple (Lk 2:41-51a) — Jesus and his parents, Mary and Joseph, know exactly what the confirmandi are going through in these years of their lives.

Jesus would have been on the verge of adolescence. Traditionally, this is when Jewish boys and girls would observe the traditional coming of age ritual (bar and bat mitzvah, respectively). It signals the advent of adulthood and becoming a full-fledged member of the Jewish community. Similarly, the meaning of the sacramental conferral of Confirmation at this time is enriched by the consideration that now the confirmandi need special help from the Holy Spirit. 

Adolescence can be as terrifying as it is exhilarating. Raging hormones, consuming passions, questions about identity, relationships, life’s purpose and meaning, arise naturally during this turbulent period. No doubt Jesus, in the physical, psychological and spiritual development of his human nature, was exploring similar matters: Who am I? Whom do I listen to? Where is my life going? As young people often seek out mentors, his dialogue with the temple teachers may well have been initiated by this young man seeking more clarity on these questions. Clearly, the teachers were intrigued by Jesus as well, no doubt drawing something from his divinity.

In both physical and spiritual adolescence, it is normal to experience doubts. No one who has been through this natural biological cycle needs a reminder or explanation. It is as tempestuous as any storm at sea. So also, our spiritual lives pass through cycles very much resembling adolescence and rough weather. St. Teresa of Avila warned of this, saying that such cyclical peaks and troughs are as natural to spiritual life and weather itself.

It happens after the honeymoon or the first stages of beginner’s enthusiasm when one lands a new position or enters any relationship, including those taking steps forward in their faith. A long overdue confession, with the accompanying catharsis of finally being able to come clean before God’s wonderful mercy, can be followed by severe trials as Satan tries to scuttle spiritual growth, seeking to humiliate the humbled penitent.

It happened to Jesus in the desert, in his depleted strength, induced by his fasting and social isolation. Though never truly alone, like ourselves struggling through pandemic lockdowns and distancing, he experienced the temptation to satisfy his sense of vulnerability by falling for lesser gods: power, acquisitions and sensual gratification. He banishes Satan and reaffirms his prime allegiance to God alone.

After the temple experience, Mary and Joseph question their son about his unexplained dalliance — he did not have the advantage of a cell phone to text with — and he can only respond that a larger loyalty summoned him: to be in the “house of my Father,” which is a way of saying that he has come to understand that doing the will of the one he calls “Father” must be the center of his life. That said, he does not declare an exemption from his humanity and, as the evangelist tells us, “He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them” (Lk 2:51a).

I proposed to the confirmandi that the many voices and demands, interior and external, that they are and will be experiencing in their journey through these adolescent years are a necessary component of their spiritual and emotional maturation. I also offered that they take the advice of the Holy Spirit, who led and accompanied Jesus in the desert and whom they were receiving in power, to make God the center of their lives and, in particular, Jesus himself, the one who is not only fully divine but fully human and who understands the rhythms of their hearts and minds, bodies and souls. Do not be afraid of sinking or getting lost — I was testifying also from personal experience — because Jesus always meets us exactly where we are.

Doubts that we may all experience in moments of trial and weakness, whether induced by natural cycles, existential causes, uncertain relationships or simply our own sinfulness, can confirm our need for a source of hope and salvation outside ourselves. In our most vulnerable states, we can retreat into our man-caves and she-sheds, and text or “Facebook” the small world of our “contacts,” search the web or medicate to euphoria. All such divertive devices lead inevitably to a crash. Much wiser to hold onto the real rock of our salvation, our personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

Just as Jesus learned that loyalty to his heavenly Father did not have to mean rejection of or exemption from the natural cycles of human life, disloyalty to his earthly parents, isolation from friends or a lack of appreciation for the good pleasures of living (cf. Mt 11:19, Lk 7:34), so also can our doubts and insecurities lead us to discover that we do have hearts restless for divine friendship, as St. Augustine relates in his “Confessions.” They confirm that we are, after all, hardwired for heaven, thirsting for eternal connections that will never lead us astray or bring us down.

Wherever one might be on their spiritual journey, Jesus is sure to show up. He meets us where we are. That is good news. Good friends do that: meet friends where they are. But they never leave friends where they are: they accompany them to better places. Jesus is a good friend, that “BFF” — best friend forever — whom we all need and seek. Trusting in him, human doubts are dispelled as we fall into divine love.