by Br Julian McDonald cfc

After three days, they found Jesus in the Temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions, and all who heard him were astounded at his intelligence and his answers…His mother said to him: “Son, why have you done this to us?…Your father and I, grief-stricken, have been searching for you.” He said to them: “Why? Did you not know that I had to be in my Father’s house?” Luke 2, 41-52

At the outset, it’s important to note that scholars regard this gospel-reading as a later addition to Luke’s original Gospel, recognising that it came from a vibrant oral tradition containing an abundance of stories about aspects of Jesus’ life. Secondly, a more accurate translation of Jesus’ response to Mary and Jesus is “Did you not know I must be in my Father’s house” rather than the more familiar “about my Father’s business?”

I suggest that in this story about Jesus getting lost there is a tension between the reality of Jesus beginning to assert his independence and the way in which we human beings can embellish stories, especially when we have the benefit of a retrospective view of the person who is at the centre of the story.

Once we accept that Jesus was like us in everything except sin (Hebrews 4, 15), we have to accept that Jesus had to negotiate the challenges that accompany normal human maturation and development. He had to grow through the physical and emotional changes of puberty, adolescence and young adulthood; he had to struggle with the trial and error learning that accompanied claiming and asserting his independence; like most young people finding their way in life, he would have failed to realise the impact on his parents of some of his decisions. At the same time, in the Jewish culture in which he grew up, there was the custom that boys were told that on their twelfth birthday they inherited the responsibility of being faithful to the Torah. In other words, they had to start taking on adult responsibilities. Moreover, rabbis of Jesus’ time, followed the practice of teaching their congregations by gathering them in groups in the temple/synagogue precincts and following a question and answer process, inviting participants to make contributions to the discussion. Apparently, this is the kind of activity in which Jesus was involved while Mary and Joseph were searching frantically for him. Those who shaped and embellished the story of today’s gospel-reading would not have dared to present him as anything less than precocious. Suggesting that he stunned the Temple teachers with his answers and insights was the story-shapers’ way of pointing out that there were clear signs when Jesus was only 12 years old that he was destined to be the Messiah.

Side by side with the story of the young Jesus’ brilliance is the fact that Jesus, Mary and Joseph belonged to an extended family. In practice, that meant that on a pilgrimage journey, the adults chatted with one another as they walked along, and the children were left to entertain themselves. So, it is entirely understandable that Mary and Joseph did not notice that Jesus had stayed behind in Jerusalem. And it fits that Jesus had not even thought to tell his parents what he had decided to do. It was entirely credible that Joseph and Mary became frantic when they discovered that Jesus was missing. Like all parents whose child goes missing, they would have been imagining that he had come to harm. Little wonder, then, that, when she found him, Mary gave Jesus a piece of her mind. And in keeping with the mentality of a youngster who had not dreamed that he had caused concern, Jesus gave an answer that seemed to be about defending his action. In keeping with the embellishment theory, his answer strikes me as being beyond the capacity of a 12year-old boy. However, his answer suits Luke’s purpose of pointing out that even as early as when her son was only 12, Mary was given a hint that Jesus was not hers to hold onto, that his life journey would take him away from her and Joseph. In an almost non-committal way, Luke merely records: “Mary held all these things deep within her heart.” (Luke 2, 20)

There are other dimensions to this story. There was a time when we Catholics were led to believe that there was some idyllic quality to the life of the “Holy Family”. It was as though theirs was a life which we were expected to emulate in our families. But, would we want to endure the things that came their way? Mary and Joseph had to put up with the gossip about Mary’s pregnancy before she and Joseph were married; they had to contend with the indignity of Jesus being born in an animal shelter; they had to protect their son by journeying as refugees to Egypt, where they hardly lived in luxury, where, at best, they were tolerated; and Mary had to carry the pain and indignity of seeing her adult son executed as a criminal. All that now makes me wonder if Mary ever regretted saying “yes” to Gabriel instead of telling him to go and disturb some other girl’s life. Yet, somehow, it’s their faith and trust in God that Mary and Joseph clung to as they made their way through the upsets, fears and crises that befell them that we are asked to imitate. There is no family that does not experience disappointment, dislocation, grief and tragedy of one kind or another. When people of faith risk venturing into family life, they have to learn to trust that God’s Spirit will be there to guide them through the difficulties and disappointments, through the griefs and tragedies, through the joys and triumphs that will inevitably come their way.

There is yet one more realistic implication to this story. Even a brief reflection on our lives will reveal that, while we say that Jesus and his Gospel, are central to our lives, there have been times when we have lost Jesus and his message. We claim to belong to a community of faith, yet when the conduct of its leaders is less than we expect, we walk away and label ourselves as disaffected Catholics. When family members fall ill or sully the family reputation, we pray that God will make things right. But we don’t get the miracles for which we pray. So, we stop our prayers. We have somehow lost Jesus. Any number of things can happen in our lives that lead us to attribute the blame to God for not taking into account the good and decent lives we have lived. So, our faith wavers and we lose contact with God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

We might “lose” Jesus by distancing ourselves from him or by locking him out of our lives. But let’s not forget that he continues to make his presence felt in the kindness, love, forgiveness and compassion of the people we encounter every day. Sometimes we have to be jolted into realising that the goodness of other people, and indeed, our own goodness, reflect the goodness of God and the goodness of Jesus whose coming among us we celebrate at Christmas.