The gospel text says that every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. The festival lasted seven days and included special meals and sacrifices as people how God helped the Children of Israel escape slavery in Egypt by inflicting ten plagues upon the Egyptians before the Pharaoh would release his Israelite slaves; the tenth and worst of the plagues was the death of the Egyptian first-born. The Israelites were instructed to mark the doorposts of their homes with the blood of a spring lamb and, upon seeing this, the spirit of the Lord knew to pass over the first-borns in these homes, hence the name of the holiday.
So each year, Jesus’ family went to this Passover festival and the year where our story takes place, Jesus is twelve years old. When it comes time to leave the festival, his parents assume that he is somewhere in the group of travelers and they end up leaving without him. By the time they realize he is gone and come back for him, they have been separated from him for three days.
I have to admit that I hear this story with brand new ears as a mother than I ever did before I had children of my own. I think before my focus was always on the boy Jesus and how I was sure he was very mature for his age and he had stuff to do. The story used to make more sense to me. But now I read the story as a parent – and when I read this story all I can think is “ummm…Mary and Joseph, you traveled a day’s journey before you even realized you were missing a child?”
But then I remember that of course, there were relatives and many close friends traveling in the group – and it is possible that even the definition of family was much more elastic then – sort of like it was expected that everyone looks out for each other and their kiddos. Actually that’s not so strange – I see that out here all the time – if parents are busy in the kitchen or doing something else, others watch over the kiddos on the playground or just make sure they don’t get into trouble. But wow – can you imagine – how they must have felt when they realized that they traveled a DAY’s JOURNEY before they noticed their son was missing?
The horror Mary and Joseph felt when they realized that Jesus wasn’t just off and playing with the cousins or busy with the horses farther back in the caravan – but that he was actually not there – but somewhere a day’s journey behind?
Any parent knows that sinking feeling of not knowing exactly where their child is. Whether it is for just a few moments in a busy place when they are suddenly not in your sight or if it is much longer –the feeling is terrifying. When the boys were very small I tried to take them to the mall to pick up something at the last minute before Christmas. Usually I put them in their double stroller – but for some reason – I think because it was supposed to be just a very quick trip in and out – I told them to just stay close to me and we’d get what we needed.
Well, this was before I understood that children often have their own agendas and are surprisingly quick on those little legs – and I looked away from them for seriously two seconds and one boy ran one way and the other ran the other way among the tall racks of clothing. I looked down where they had been and they were just gone. I looked all around the racks right around me – nowhere – and I thought “oh my – both of my children have been abducted. I’m going to be on the news tonight.” I began to search more frantically – and it was probably only about thirty seconds until I heard them snickering – they were hiding among the clothes on one rack right next to me – but of course, it had felt like an eternity. For any parent, losing track of your child and not knowing where they are or what might be happening to them – is simply awful.
And some might point out as we read this story of Jesus that not only had they lost track of their child, but they had lost track of God’s son! Whether or not that added to their anxiety we don’t know – but we do know they returned to Jerusalem to look for him. They didn’t find him right away – it took them three days to find him. Three days they had to search for their boy and finally, finally they found him.
He was sitting with the teachers – listening to them and asking them questions. But it doesn’t sound like the reunion with his parents was terribly touching. In fact, after Mary says what she has probably been rehearsing for three days she is going to say to Jesus when she finally finds him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you with great anxiety!” Jesus doesn’t apologize. He is not the repentant son. Rather, he sounds decidedly lippy, if you ask me, from a mom’s perspective. He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
I can almost imagine Mary’s head feeling like it is going to explode at this point. We don’t know if she said anything else –like, “I don’t want to hear it – you are grounded for a month!” or if she just hugged her boy close, grateful she could hold him again, see him again – even though she didn’t understand him and what he was saying.
I wonder if you noticed that here, once again, the scripture reminds us after all this in verse 51 that Mary treasured all these things in her heart. Just as she did the night he was born and the angel choirs sang and the shepherds came running to meet him – now, once again, twelve years later she is treasuring these things in her heart.
Of course, that is what parents do. Whether our children are the first-born of God or not, we treasure them, or as another version of this scripture reads – we hold them dearly and deeply. From their amazing first breath to their astounding first steps to their incredible first words – and even or maybe especially as they become little people with opinions and their own particular ways of being stubborn or sweet or kind or smart or tenderhearted or abrasive –we treasure their “becoming.” They astonish us with the things they say and do and we do everything we can to savor the years and not rush through them – we take pictures, we scrapbook, we write down memories, we celebrate the birthdays, the big events, the small events – we treasure it all.
And Mary looked at her boy, Jesus, and did the same. And in addition to treasuring that she had found him again – I think it could be that this time also stirred a new realization for her as she began to catch glimpses of who Jesus was becoming. There he was, in his father’s house – amazing people with his understanding and his teaching.
She was raising him for this, of course. But it must have been bittersweet. We raise our children to get them to that point where they are ready to take wings and fly on their own. Mary was raising Jesus so that he could grow up and do what he was meant to do. Here he was, still her boy, but he was growing so fast. Oh Mary, we know how that goes.