(Begin by reading the Gospel. Sometimes it is good to have someone read it to you. The Word is meant to be heard.)
The feast has arrived and it has only just begun! For three Sundays, we celebrate our joy that God comes into the world as one of us. Living in the world, Jesus learns what it means to be human. Reflecting on his life, we learn what it means to be human, too. In the Gospel for this Sunday, the feast of the Holy Family, we hear about a time when Jesus is twelve years old.
Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival.
Mary, Joseph, and Jesus are Jewish. Celebrating the Passover meal each year is an important part of the Jewish faith. It is a way of celebrating both the saving act of God in history and the saving act of God in their own lives. This is called covenant relationship. It is important to Mary and Joseph that their child grows in the faith, grows in covenant relationship with God.
Does this sound familiar at all? As Christians we also have covenant relationship with God. We celebrate the saving act of God in history and the saving act of God in our lives when we celebrate the Holy Mass. Our parents promised to raise us in the faith at our Baptism. It is important to them that we grow in covenant relationship with God.
When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travellers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him.
This seems crazy to us. How on earth could Mary and Joseph not know that Jesus was not with them?? Their culture is very different from ours. As they leave on a journey, everyone is not bucked into seatbelts, snacks are not handed out, heads are not counted. Instead, a huge group of family and friends walk together. Everyone knows the day they are leaving. Children as old as twelve are responsible enough to ensure they are among the group and walk with their brothers and sisters, cousins and friends.
St. Luke tells us that "the boy Jesus stayed behind." He does not say that Jesus forgets to meet the others. He does not say that Jesus loses track of time. Staying behind sounds like a deliberate decision that Jesus makes. It is a choice.
After three days they found him in the temple sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.
The choice that Jesus makes to remain behind is a choice to grow in his relationship with God. A large part of the Jewish approach to scripture is engaging in discussions and arguments about what is written. Asking questions is extremely important. Why is this particular word used and not another? What is meant by this word? What is not being said? Questions cause us to draw nearer to the mystery of God.
Listening is also extremely important. People who enjoy and explore covenant relationship with God have wisdom and experience that can help us along, too. The community of believers helps us to know God if we are prepared to listen. In choosing to remain behind, Jesus is taking ownership of his relationship with God. His parents have brought him up in the faith, but now he chooses to explore it on his own.
His parents? Whoops. Jesus seems to have forgotten about them. He certainly did not ask them if he could remain behind. He did not tell them how important it is to him that he remain.
When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, ‘Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.’ He said to them, ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ But they did not understand what he said to them.
This is not a family without trouble in their relationships. Mary and Joseph are obviously hurt by Jesus' inconsiderate choice. Why wouldn't he talk to them? Why would he not consider their feelings? This is not how an obedient boy should behave.
Joseph might also be hurt when Jesus refers to the Temple as his Father's house. Jesus is not referring to Joseph. Our own dads might say, "Excuse me, child, that is hurtful. I'm standing right here." Jesus does not seem to consider Joseph's feelings at all.
Jesus himself might be hurt by his parents' lack of understanding. Why does it take them so long to find him? Why do they not know him better? Why don't they understand him?
This is not a perfect family. This is not a family that is unfamiliar with the painful nature of relationships. This is a family that is remarkably similar to our own.
Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart.
And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favour.
Jesus at twelve years old has much to learn about relationships both with God and with family. His experience remaining behind at the Temple helps him to grow in his relationship with God and also teaches him something about his responsibility as a child in a family. We can learn a lot from Jesus' experience.
We are left, however, with many questions about this passage from scripture. This is good. We can ask these questions and draw nearer to the mystery of God. We can listen to those who live their covenant relationship with God and benefit by their wisdom and experience. We can take ownership of our own relationship with God.