My morning reading has settled into some habitual grooves, and for a reliably thoughtful one or two articles a day, I go to FT’s “On the Square,” to Public Discourse, and to The Catholic Thing, where one of the regulars is Brad Miner. Today Mr. Miner (we’ve never met so I won’t call him “Brad”) has one of his characteristically sound commentaries, but seems to me to hit one false note with respect to language. He writes:
Is there one person who may be said to have certainly “seen” (understood) the true identity of Jesus Christ while he lived? Mary or Joseph perhaps? One may be tempted to read the Incarnation back into the exclamations of Simeon and Anna, yet Luke (2:23) states quite clearly of those prophecies that Mary and Joseph “were wondering at those things which were spoken concerning [Jesus].” Wondering isn’t proof positive that they were not fully aware of the divinity of Jesus, but it’s suggestive.
The verse Miner wants is Luke 2:33, not 2:23, but that’s neither here nor there. What I am wondering about is what he means by “wondering.” Nowadays we’re prone to say things like, “I wonder why he did that,” indicating a certain curiosity, a desire to know, an indication that we are ignorant about or baffled or mystified by something we want to think through and understand better. I just used it that way a couple sentences ago. Is that what Miner means? That when Luke tells us Joseph and Mary were “wondering,” he means (or might mean) that they were puzzled, or trying to figure out who Jesus was?
If this is the way Miner reads the passage, then he may have fallen prey to the sort of change over time in a word’s use that C.S. Lewis cautions us about in Studies in Words. I do not know what Luke’s Greek was here (and some reader is bound to tell us in the comments), but my RSV gives the verse this way: “And his father and mother marveled at what was said about him.” “Marveled” does a better job of conveying what “wondered” once meant–that one takes in an experience as awe-inspiring, deeply significant, and so on.
The Oxford English Dictionary gives this first definition for the verb “to wonder”: “To feel or be affected with wonder; to be struck with surprise or astonishment, to marvel.” Perhaps Miner is reaching for the “surprise or astonishment” here–feelings frequently accompanied by a sense that something passes one’s understanding. But to be amazed and astonished–to marvel and be awestruck, even to sense something present is beyond your ken–is perfectly consistent with Mary and Joseph’s full knowledge of who their little boy was. That they were in the presence of the divine second Person of the Trinity must have been a daily source of wonder and amazement to them. They lived with a miracle, the greatest of all miracles.
Theirs was, in truth, a wonderful life–an adjective we do not employ to indicate our bafflement about something. The usually perspicacious Mr. Miner seems to me to have put one foot wrong here, in an otherwise excellent column.