The colourful and poignant episode which we find in our Gospel reading today is only recounted in the Gospel of Luke. The evangelist uses it as a bridge between the account of the birth of Jesus and the beginning of his adult ministry.
He emphasises the religious observance of the couple described as “the parents of Jesus”, who were accustomed to making an annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem in order to celebrate the feast of Passover. On this occasion, the twelve-year-old Jesus decides to remain behind without informing them. They discover him in the Temple, teaching the teachers.
In spite of all the information that they have received, which we have considered over the Christmas period, about the nature of the child to be born, Mary and Joseph fail to understand Jesus’ rather enigmatic reply to his mother’s relieved but exasperated question, “Why have you done this to us? See how worried your father and I have been, looking for you.” He answers, rather abruptly, about being “busy with my Father’s affairs”. This failure to understand what Jesus says will recur in the Gospel narrative.
This incident is bracketed in Luke’s Gospel by notices about Jesus growing up in Nazareth: the verse immediately preceding today’s extract says that “he grew to maturity, and he was filled with wisdom and God’s favour was with him”. This wisdom is illustrated in his discussions with the teachers of the Law in the Temple. After that Jesus “went down with them then and came to Nazareth and lived under their authority”. Jesus’ human nature is very much emphasised in these passages.
Today, a child of twelve is embarking on secondary school. At the time of Jesus, a boy of twelve was probably considered able to undertake adult responsibility in religious matters and to be responsible for any vow he might make. So this story is not simply about a lost child. Only a parent can fully understand the feelings of Mary and Joseph on discovering that Jesus was missing from the company with whom they were travelling.
This story is highly charged from an emotional point of view. There is a missing child: a frantic search by anxious parents; the eventual relief at discovering that the boy is safe and sound; the perplexity at his precocious talent in holding an apparently impressive discussion with well-qualified experts in their own field. Then there is the first indication that the adolescent has a mind of his own, that he senses a calling of which his parents have no inkling or understanding, but the family relationship continues until the appropriate time.
To be a married person, a parent, is just as much a vocation as to be a priest or religious sister or brother, and just as demanding – or more so. This feast reminds us that most Christians are called to be committed partners in marriage and parenthood, and should be honoured as such. Like Mary, maybe we should “store up all these things in our hearts”
- The average life expectancy at the time of Jesus was around 35 years.
- A boy (sic) of twelve was considered able to undertake adult religious responsibilities.
- The depiction of Joseph as an elderly man has no basis in the Gospel tradition.
Put out your crib figures of Mary, Joseph and the child Jesus. Reflect that most Christians are called to live out our faith as married and family members.