Even the best of parents can end up worrying about their children, even when the child happens to be the best of children.
I’ve never been able to read this except as a parent. St. Luke casually reports, “When the festival was ended, Jesus stayed behind but his parents did not know it.” (2:43). Of course they didn’t know it. They are parents. What makes anyone think they knew anything at all?
The 12-year-old Jesus decided to hang around the Temple and chat it up with the teachers and rabbis while his parents trekked back to Nazareth. Makes you wonder why one of those guys did not ask, “Shouldn’t you be getting back to your folks about now?” Never mind; it wouldn’t have mattered. Every sensible 12-year-old boy would’ve replied, “Naw, they won’t mind.”
If a 12-year-old knew where he was and was happy enough being there, bothering his parents with the information wouldn’t be of any help.
Mary and Joseph head back to Nazareth with the other pilgrims. Joseph walks with the men, thinking Jesus is with Mary. Mary walks with the women, thinking Jesus is with Joseph. They travel the entire day like this, stopping for the night.
The conversation at this point (according to some scribal interpolations awaiting discovery) goes like: “What do you mean, you haven’t seen him? I left him with you.” “Whoa! What do you mean you left him with me?” So they turn back to Jerusalem — another day of travel — to undertake what becomes a three-day search. The boy, in short, is five days missing.
Where would you begin a search for a 12-year-old boy? Maybe they prowled the Jerusalem bazaars, shouted his name every time they saw a clot of children, but now, after looking everywhere else they could think, they take a shot at the Temple.
Yes. There he is in the Temple, talking to the teachers and religious leaders, “listening to them and asking questions,” reports St. Luke, and “all who heard him were amazed at his intelligence and the answers he gave.” This, I suspect, is St. Luke’s version of Bible Code for something like, “Pity that kid’s rabbi.”
Mary, upon whom generations of Christians have lavished all manner of exalted titles except Typical Mother, reacts as Typical Mother. “Why,” she confronts her son, “did you do this to us?”
Parents tend to take things altogether too personally where their children are involved. Parents always feel that what the kid did was done deliberately to them. There’s hardly any other reason. Kids, by parental thinking, do things to parents to demoralize them, worry them, test them, and cost them extra money, embarrassment, peace of mind, sleep at night, laundry, gas in the car, or tread off the tires. Every parent has the natural, inalienable right to ask, “Why did you do this to me?”
The 12-year-old Jesus responds as Typical Pre-Teen. “Mom, Dad. Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know where I’d be?” Well, no, they didn’t. That’s why they spent five days looking. To 12-year-old minds, all parents possess location devices for all lost items, including themselves.
But then the boy adds a coy guilt-inducing condescending jab to the spiritual solar plexus. “Didn’t you know I must be in my Father’s house?”
That remark hits me like my son when he was 12, telling me after chewing me out over something, “I only tell you these things so you’ll be a better parent to the other children.” While I was appreciative, I think I did say, “Talk to me like that again and I’ll knock the wheels off your skateboard.”
St. Luke laconically remarks, Mary and Joseph “didn’t understand what he was saying.” The boy is missing five days and when they find him, he nonchalantly dismisses their worry and casually questions their intelligence. Was there anything else St. Luke could say?
And that’s the end of the story.
As I said, I have never been able to read this story except as a parent. A priest I know explained this is why we know nothing of Jesus from age 12 to age 33. Mary had him grounded.
But as a parent I am glad, genuinely heartened, to discover that Jesus was a normal kid, somebody my kids could have known, perfectly normal, more or less like my kids growing up. “He was made like his brothers in every respect” is the astonishing point made by the Letter to the Hebrews.
This story tells me that even the best of parents can end up worrying about their children, even when the child happens to be the best of children, and as God used the little Family of Nazareth to sanctify the whole world, let us pray God will use our holy families to sanctify our small part of the world. Because, God knows, this world needs it.
St. Luke adds a small post-script after the episode in the Temple. “[Jesus] went down to Nazareth with them . . . and grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.”
There’s a fair wish for all our children. May they each grow in stature, find favor with God and neighbor, and maybe even, please, pick up a little wisdom along the way.
An earlier version of this reflection appeared at another publication.