A Mysterious Incident from Jesus' Childhood

Mary and Joseph knew the agony of having a missing child. What are we to make of this mysterious incident, and what does it tell us about Jesus' future?
Mary and Joseph knew the agony of having a missing child. What are we to make of this mysterious incident, and what does it tell us about Jesus' future? (photo: Register Files)

This Sunday we celebrate the mystery of the Holy Family.

What was it like for Jesus, Mary, and Joseph to live together?

Each is a very remarkable person! Put all three together and . . . wow.

Today we have reality shows about interesting and extraordinary families, but they didn't have reality shows back then.

Fortunately, we are given a glimpse into the domestic life of the Holy Family.

And it's a glimpse provided by the Virgin Mary herself . . .


Missing Child!

This episode in the life of the Holy Family begins on a holiday: specifically, the feast of Passover.

Luke records that the Holy Family went up to Jerusalem each year for the feast of Passover, apparently in a company of "their kinsfolk and acquaintances," and when Jesus was twelve, he stayed behind in Jerusalem.

Joseph and Mary did not realize this until they had already gone "a day's journey" back to Nazareth, at which point they realized he was not with the company.

They thus began to experience the agony and anxiety of parents who discover their child is missing.

And note the foreshadowing: Was there ever another time in Jesus life, at Passover, in Jerusalem, when Mary would be deprived of Jesus?


"On the Third Day"

Joseph and Mary thus return to Jerusalem and "after three days" find him.

The three days, in this case, are apparently:

  • the first day spent journeying from Jerusalem,
  • a second day spend journeying back to Jerusalem,
  • and the third day (or part of a third day) searching for him in Jerusalem.

Again, note the foreshadowing: The three days echo the three days (or, more precisely, parts of three days) that Jesus spent in the tomb, during which Mary and the disciples were deprived of Jesus' presence but then found him again "on the third day" (cf. Lk. 9:22).


Why Weren't They Monitoring Jesus More Closely?

The fact that Joseph and Mary did not realize Jesus was not among them can seem surprising.

A natural question is why Joseph and Mary weren't monitoring Jesus more closely.

Our own age is obsessed with keeping track of children at all times. We've even invented electronic baby monitors and special child-tracking apps for their phones. But in the ancient world, matters were more relaxed.

I can remember, from my own boyhood, going out and playing in the woods or walking miles by myself or in the company of other children, before the invention of the "play date" and before the "children must never be left alone for a single minute" mindset set in.

Also there's this: Jesus probably struck Mary and Joseph as an unusually mature and responsible boy who didn't need constant supervision.

Benedict XVI comments:

"Given our perhaps unduly narrow image of the holy family, we find this surprising. But it illustrates very beautifully that in the holy family, freedom and obedience were combined in a healthy manner. The twelve-year-old was free to spend time with friends and children of his own age, and to remain in their company during the journey. Naturally, his parents expected to see him when evening came" (Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives).


In His Father's House

When Mary and Joseph found Jesus again, the place was significant. He was "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."

Luke records that Joseph and Mary "were astonished," though he does not tell us whether they were astonished at finding him interacting with such learned company or at his having stayed behind. Probably both.

At the moment, Mary says to him, "Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously."

Jesus responds: "How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?"



Some have taken Jesus' response as a rebuke, it it need not be read harshly. Jesus may be marveling at their level of concern and confusion.

They had correctly deduced that he was still in Jerusalem. They knew that Jesus had no human father. Mary herself had been told that Jesus is the Son of God (Lk. 1:32, 35). The temple is God's house. How hard should it be to guess where Jesus is likely to be found?

Still, this logic operates at a different level than the thoughts of an anxious parent, and so, although Joseph and Mary knew the basic facts about Jesus, they did not put the pieces together and, at least at the moment, "they did not understand the saying which he spoke to them."


"And Was Obedient to Them"

The text does contain a pointed reminder that Joseph is merely Jesus' foster father, not his ultimate Father.

But this does not mean that Jesus rejects the authority of Joseph, nor does the incident mean that Jesus was a wild or rebellious child.

He was a surprising child, but he was also obedient, as Luke makes sure we know, for "he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them."


How We Know This

Luke concludes the section by saying: "And his mother kept all these things in her heart."

That identifies Mary as the source of the information.

She treasured the experience and, in later years, recounted it to others--perhaps including Luke himself.

Undoubtedly, by that time the foreshadowing of the event--Passover at Jerusalem, being deprived of Jesus, finding him again after three days, his going to his Father--had all become clear.


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