One of the few things that people from various Christian traditions seem to agree on is the central text for Christmastide, in which the boy Jesus travels with his earthly parents to the Temple in Jerusalem. This episode in the Life of Christ is commonly referred to as “Christ Among the Doctors.” It is the episode that best connects Advent to Common Time, and it is the only credible story we have concerning the childhood of Jesus during the time between his Nativity and his Epiphany.
Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover. When he was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom. After the festival was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days they found him in the Temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.
Why were you searching for me? he asked. Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house? But they did not understand what he was saying to them.
Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.
I don’t know what it is about little kids, but they all seem to love to run away. When my kids were little, I used to love going with them to the mall so we could walk around during the winter time and get a little energy out. But, guaranteed, the moment I turned my back on either one of them they would bolt for the door to the parking lot. They do that at church too, and I remember one horrible day when I couldn’t figure out which door my daughter had tried to escape from, only to find her perched at the top of a long, steep flight of concrete stairs getting ready to do her first big dive.
Once during those mall-walk sessions, I lost sight of my son for about a minute. I guess I’m over-protective, but I normally didn’t let him out of my sight for three seconds, so this minute seemed like an eternity. I got the sweats and that ache you get in your spine when dread comes over you like a shroud. And when I found him sampling ladies perfume, I wigged out and scolded him for being so careless.
As if he was the careless one.
These are the memories that come to mind when I think of Mary and Joseph forgetting Jesus at the Temple. Only Jesus wasn’t missing for a minute, he was missing for 4320 minutes.
Knowing a little about the context, though, keeps us from calling Palestinian Child Protective Services.
The Holy Family were in Jerusalem for Passover, an eight day celebration, held about 70 miles from their hometown of Nazareth. All good Jewish families participated in Passover – especially those with boys 12 years and up (they had special duties and privileges during the feast) – and so there were often large groups of people traveling together, much like a caravan. Since this tedious journey took several days and you were accompanied by friends and family (many of whom had children), it was common for the children to run around and play with each other, visiting their cousins and the other members of the family. If you’ve ever been a chaperone for a school field trip, you know how this kind of thing goes. Every time you stop for gas at a service station, all the kids get out and run around and buy candy and swap seats and it’s mayhem, complete madness, trying to get back on the road.
Well – that’s not how their ‘stops’ went, that's how the entire journey was.
After Passover, on the journey home, Mary and Joseph each likely thought Jesus was with the other. The women typically went well ahead of the men (since they walked more slowly), and historians tell us it often took an entire day for someone from the back of the caravan to reach the front of it. Since the departure was such a big deal, and since it would have been so obvious that everyone was leaving, it’s no wonder that Mary and Joseph supposed Jesus to have been there – and indeed it’s quite possible that he started out with the group and then wandered off into the Temple later.
And, of course, their world was quite a bit different than ours. The dangers of child-snatching and pedophilia were less pronounced, and – particularly in such a close knit extension of neighbors and kin – the degree of trust in other people was exceptionally, and justifiably, high.
Once Mary and Joseph realized Jesus wasn’t with them, the panic would have set in quickly and deeply:
Where is he?
Is he ok?
Has he been kidnapped?
Has he fallen and been hurt?
Has he run away?
Had he gone on ahead of them and by heading back to Jerusalem they were further distancing themselves from their son?
Maybe he wanted to live in the big city and foolishly decided to try to make it on his own.
Lo and behold they found their twelve-year-old son in the Temple. Luke mentions that it was after three days that they found him – one day to head home and then (at the end of the day) realize Jesus isn’t with them, one day to scramble back to Jerusalem, and one day to search for him in Jerusalem and ultimately find him in the Temple.
These “three days” are significant, by the way.
Just as the story of Jesus’ birth subtly rhymes with the account of his burial (the swaddling clothes are like burial clothes, the frankincense and myrrh are used in preparation for internment, etc), this account anticipates his resurrection. Notice the timeline (‘after three days’), as well as the connection between Jesus’ question to Mary (“why have you been seeking?”) and the angels’ question to the women at the empty tomb (“why do you seek the living among the dead?” see Luke 24.5). There is also a connection between Mary ‘treasuring these things in her heart’ and the tomb-women ‘remembering these words’ (see Luke 24.8).
Obviously Luke intends for us to make the connection between what happens with Jesus as a boy, cooperating with his Father’s mission to heal the world, and the price he will pay for that mission later on at the hands of the very people with whom he is now learning.
During Passover it was common for the Sanhedrin – the mucky mucks and learned men of Second Temple Judaism – to gather in the Temple court and dialogue with anyone who wanted to stretch their theological muscles. It was the ancient equivalent to a town hall meeting, when politicians show up in small venues to get face-to-face with their constituents, or – maybe even better – when a DJ broadcasts their radio program from a mobile booth in the park.
While many famous paintings and works of art show Jesus wowing the crowds with his pre-teen understanding of Torah, it was much more likely that Christ was learning from the Sanhedrin rather than one-upping them. “Listening to them and asking questions” was the normal Jewish way of learning; so, rather than thinking of the boy-Christ educating the educators, we must understand that he was coming under their intellect and studiously applying himself to the Scriptures.
Some might wonder about this.
Since, they might ask, Jesus was (and is) God, and since God is all-knowing, doesn’t it stand to reason that Jesus would have already possessed his supreme knowledge? Wouldn’t he have shared it with the Sanhedrin, exposing them to their ignorance and showing his worth as Messiah?
Simply, no. Remember that Christ came into the world and emptied himself of his divine privileges (see Philippians 2.7) and so lived (and grew and matured) just as any common person would have. He did not “cheat” with his divinity, but fully invested himself in the human condition.
Anne Rice, famed novelist and noted Christ-follower, conceives this self-limitation as a kind of knowledge and power that Christ had but refused to access.
I like this way of conceptualizing Jesus’ divine-human duality, because I can relate to the experience of suppressing memories.
Anytime I counsel someone, for example, I try and later suppress what I’ve just heard and learned so they don't feel stigmatized.
Anytime I learn of a scenario in which one person has wronged another – say a husband to his wife, say – I willfully dismiss the knowledge I have so I can be available and present to others without judgment and - perhaps more importantly - without circumventing the natural revelations that people want to share themselves, without me supplying all the answers or claiming to know everything which then makes then shy and afraid, lazy and even belligerent.
Jesus lived and learned and loved as any other human child. He was eager to be trained, though, and showed promise to such a degree that Mary and Joseph were both astonished at his development. That word “astonished” in Greek means something like “hit in the face” and causes us to recognize that, despite his supernatural birth, Jesus was in many ways just a normal boy. Obviously the uniqueness of their son and his divine calling and nature had faded somewhat from their memory, and in this moment that realization came crashing back to them.
It was like they saw their son for who he really was.
And in response, perhaps with surprise and shame mixed together, Mary blurts out an accusation: Why have you treated us like this?
That reminds me of when I found Jacob in the mall, smelling perfume: How could you be so irresponsible? So careless?
Isn’t it funny how Mary and I both chose to lay the blame for the disappearance of our children on them instead of on us? Shouldn't we have said: I’m so sorry, I don’t know how I could have been so irresponsible?
Haven’t you ever done this? Shouted at your kid when all you really wanted to do was grab them and hold them tight? To burst into tears of relief and joy?
But Jesus sees right through Mary’s emotion, and refuses to accept any blame. He says: Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?
Two things stand out here: first, that Jesus is under some kind of divine compulsion (‘didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?’); and second, the subtle way in which Jesus takes the name ‘father’ from Joseph and gives it to God? That’s very significant, something no one else would have done. To everyone else, He was Lord (Yahweh), but to Jesus He was Father. And Joseph was not.
The gospel stories don’t tell us whether or not Jesus’ realization of his divine parentage slowly dawned on him over time or whether it came to him in a flash. But they do tell us that by age twelve he already knew his true Father.
But Mary and Joseph did not understand this – which, again, is remarkable. Even with all their prior preparation and messianic brooding, Mary and Joseph couldn’t fully comprehend that Jesus was meant to be the savior of the world. Or, if they did understand in principle, then they certainly didn’t get it wholly right.
Maybe that’s why Mary “treasured these things in her heart.”
Lots of parents keep little books in which they write down the funny things their kids say and do. My wife and I blog about them. It’s a nice way of going back and remembering who they were then, and being able to see – in the early stages – who they were becoming. Mary had no blog, and no scrapbook, but she held these episodes in her heart because she, too, could see who Jesus was already becoming and had already become.
Interestingly, one of the things he had already become was obedient. Luke says that Jesus went with his parents back to Nazareth and obeyed them. Although divine, it’s obvious that Jesus knew his parents loved him and were concerned for him, just as it was obvious to him that his Father had entrusted him to Mary and Joseph and He meant for them to be obeyed.
In that, as in everything else, Jesus grew. He “grew in wisdom (intellect and morality) and stature (physicality and charity), and in favor with both God and men.” This is a phrase which, in Greek, means something like persistent forward-movement, like what you’d imagine an explorer doing in the jungle – cutting and hacking a way forward, blazing a trail.
Later, as a grown man engaged in public ministry, Jesus would again cause his family pain and confusion and again they were chagrined because they failed to understand the fullness of who he was and why he had come. Looking back, it’s easy to see that Jesus himself always had a clear picture that he had been sent by his Father to heal the world.
Four key features of this text stand out to me:
God comes first
God honors authority
God is concerned with His Temple
God can be lost
I want to explore each of these in turn, because I feel that understanding them will help us to better understand the bridge between Advent and Common Time.