Around this time of year, I feel particularly attracted to the narratives of Jesus life which relate to this birth and boyhood. One of the most mysterious of these is the story of Jesus going missing
“Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem after the custom of the feast. And when they had fulfilled the days, as they returned, the child Jesus tarried behind in Jerusalem; and Joseph and his mother knew not of it. But they, supposing him to have been in the company, went a day's journey; and they sought him among their kinsfolk and acquaintance. And when they found him not, they turned back again to Jerusalem, seeking him.
And it came to pass, that after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions. And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers.
And when they saw him, they were amazed: and his mother said unto him, “Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? Behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing” And he said unto them, “How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father's business?” And they understood not the saying which he spake unto them. And he went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject unto them: but his mother kept all these sayings in her heart” (Kings James version)
Clearly, Jesus was known for spending a lot of time in his extended family, some of whom may have been Levites (the tribe of priests) or Pharisees. He seems to have been thought gregarious and independent-minded by everyone, including His mother. She would surely have checked for a retiring, shy or dependent son, before leaving Jerusalem. Of course, He may have been spending a lot of the time, privately, in the synagogue school in Nazareth, reading the Scrolls, living a secret, inner life. He was clearly “out and about" often, not staying at home.
On TV today, sadly, we see parents appealing for children who have gone missing, surrounded by police and counsellors. With dread in our hearts, we see pictures of police divers in ponds or volunteers beating wasteland, searching for a lifeless innocent, wickedly lured to a pitiless death.
When Jesus was not found within the camp, beside the road from Jerusalem, what terror must have struck Mary and Joseph, who, without the aid of police, retraced their steps the next morning at dawn, only arriving in the Holy City, forty eight hours after Jesus seemed to have disappeared. They surely arrived in the City at night. They may have had to find an inn, depending on curfew. After this time, they must have believed He was either already dead, or sold into slavery (e.g. by rogue Romans). They were already in a state of deep grief. We can imagine the state of mind of Mary, tears streaming down her face, hardly able to think, or search.
At dawn the next day, Mary and Joseph did not first think to seek the twelve year old in the Temple. They did not immediately assume that He would be there. They only went there on the third day after He went missing (or possibly, even, on the third day after they started searching for Him in the City?). Did someone tell them they had seen a boy, alone, sitting in the Temple?
We have to assume that this is because Jesus did not make public His inner life of faith. He may not have been considered at this stage, a particularly religious boy in the Jewish tradition. We know from the Gospels that He did not attend, like religious boys, an elite Rabbinical school, as those who showed early fervour for the Jewish religion. We know from His later teaching that He rejected the added teachings of men, such as exaggerated observance of the Sabbath, which added unnecessary burdens to people. His listeners did not know where He got his theological wisdom and knowledge. Jewish boys (not girls) were taught to read, and in Jesus case, to write too. They learnt a range of subjects, such as Jewish history and Hebrew, in the local synagogue school. The boy Jesus had received just an ordinary education, learning alongside the sons of local artisans and farmers.
So finally Mary and Joseph find Him, sitting with the professors in the Temple who were already astonished by His understanding. When they saw Him, they were amazed. Were they amazed to find Him calm and surrounded by theologians? Then Mary says to Him:
“Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? Thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing....”.
How human in her extreme anguish! But is there also just a hint of discipline in the phrase i.e. “Your father is angry with you for causing me such anguish”? One remembers the phrase from childhood “Wait until your father gets home....” Whether intended or not, her Son counters any implied rebuke from His mother, by saying:
“How is it that ye sought me? i.e. why did you not come straight here?
“Wist ye not that I must be about my Father's business?”
In other words, God is His Father and He has been in His house, pleasing Him, all the time. In this one sentence, He declares to them, as His loyal, beloved carers:
a) His deep and hidden inner life;
b) His total mission;
c) His sonship;
d) His Messiahship.
Whether taken up with their own grief, their confusion at His actions, or whether through some inner weakness of faith:
“They understood not the saying which he spake unto them”.
Mary and Joseph did not know the ending of the Gospels but we know that Mary later understood and believed.
We have no such excuse not to understand what He was saying to them - and also to us today.