Very little is known about the life of Jesus Christ on earth from the time when he was eight days old until when Christ in his late twenties began his public ministry by gathering His disciples. The Gospels tell us only two facts: first, that St. Joseph took the infant Jesus and His mother, All Holy Mary, to Egypt until King Herod died (Mat 2:13-15; 19-23); and second, how the young man, Jesus Christ, stayed behind in the Temple precincts during a Passover Festival (Luke 2:41-52). The first story is clearly very important, because the life of the infant Jesus Christ was at risk unless He left Bethlehem for Egypt. But why is this second story about Christ remaining in the Temple precincts, read today from Chapter 2 of the Gospel of St. Luke, so important? It is the only story told by any of the four gospels about the life of Jesus Christ on earth after his infancy until the beginning of His public ministry. There must be some reason why St. Luke thought it was important for us and many millions of other people through the centuries to know about this particular moment in the life of Jesus Christ. Let’s look more closely at what is happening in this gospel story.
In the Gospel reading for today St. Luke notes carefully that Jesus Christ was 12 years old (Luke 2:42). The age of 12 is significant, because this was the age at which every Jewish boy in first century Palestine began to prepare to take his place as an adult in the religious community the following year. For a Jewish boy then, as now, the year before becoming 13 is a year of testing, of learning, and of deciding what kind of life he wishes to lead. This was the year leading up to the Bar Mitzvah—a Hebrew phrase for the coming of age of a young Jewish man, with bar meaning “subject to,” and Mitzvah meaning “the Law.” At the age of 12, the child’s parents are still responsible for the child’s actions, but at the age of 13 young Jewish men become responsible for their own actions, able to participate in all aspects of Jewish worship and community life. They become “subject to the law;” and are then invited to lead prayer and other religious services in the family and in the community.
Notice that at the age of 12 Jesus Christ already knew what His purpose in life would be. When All Holy Mary was worried because she thought Christ had become lost in Jerusalem during the Passover celebrations, He said to her: “Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house? (Luke 2:49). This is very important. The young man, Jesus of Nazareth, knew by the time He was 12 that He was one with the Father, that the place where He would settle was not the village of Nazareth where he had been brought up by All Holy Mary and St. Joseph, but with God the Father in heaven.
There is often tension between parents and their children in most cultures and in most centuries. Inevitably, there was tension here between Christ and those who were raising him, All Holy Mary and St. Joseph. In fact, All Holy Mary, upset by not knowing what had happened to her Son, told him: “Son, why have You treated us this way? Behold, Your father and I have been anxiously looking for you” (Luke 2:48). Listen to that statement from All Holy Mary: “Behold, Your father and I have been anxiously looking for you.” All Holy Mary was very upset. She knew that St. Joseph was not the father of Jesus Christ, but she was not aware that Jesus Christ also knew that St. Joseph was not His father.” Jesus Christ immediately made it clear to His mother that He knew His Father’s house was in heaven, not in Nazareth. Christ was informing All Holy Mary that the task of her and St. Joseph to raise Him was almost finished, because Christ was about to begin His work on earth as the Son of God.
Did All Holy Mary and St. Joseph understand what Christ was telling them? Not really, according to St. Luke who wrote: “They did not understand the statement which He [that is, Jesus Christ] had made to them. And He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and He continued in subjection to them; and His mother treasured all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:50-51). That is a universal problem, is it not? At a certain age children wish to be independent of their parents, while their parents still wish to treat them as children, as the Gospel phrase has it, “in subjection to them.” At least, All Holy Mary was now aware of Christ’s understanding of the mission in His life on earth, as she “treasured all these things in her heart.”
So what is happening here? I suggest that the experience that St. Luke is setting out between St. Joseph and All Holy Mary on the one hand, and Christ on the other hand, is a universal experience within almost every loving Christian family on earth. Before this particular family went to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover, St. Luke wrote: “The Child,” that is Jesus Christ, “continued to grow and become strong, increasing in wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him” (Luke 2:40). Then after this family had been to Jerusalem for the Festival St. Luke wrote: “And Jesus kept increasing in wisdom and stature and in favour with God and men” (Luke 2:52). Note that Jesus Christ is the same before and after He stays for three days in the Temple precincts—He is continuing to grow in wisdom and grace.
Our children grow up, just as Christ did—“in wisdom and the grace of God.” Our task as parents is not only to raise our children, but to let them be free to live and to worship the Lord as they decide. Now, unfortunately, all of our children do not behave like Jesus Christ, especially when they have already gained some wisdom and grace. They may not be willing to remain “in subjection” to us as parents. We as parents and our children growing in wisdom need to discover together the parameters of our relationship—the actual limits that define the task of raising a particular child, whether that child be Jesus Christ or our own child. When should we be firm? When should we encourage free choices?
This process of a child becoming mature is a slow evolution built over many years from many experiences; and some children take longer to mature than others. We all seek to give our children roots and wings—the roots of security and the wings of independence. How can we tell when a particular child is ready to be free from parental control and influence? St. Luke offers us an important clue. What was Jesus Christ doing during the days that His mother and St. Joseph were looking for Him? He was “sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions” (Luke 2:46). Perhaps that is the attitude that we seek from our children as a sign they are ready to be independent—that they listen and that they ask questions.
This is a happy, functional family, not a sad, dysfunctional family. The story of Christ remaining for three days in the Temple precincts, as All Holy Mary and St. Joseph wander along the long dusty road from Jerusalem to Nazareth desperately looking for Him, and fearing for His safety, is a sign both of their love for Him and His readiness to be independent of them, on His terms, at His time, in His own way.
We cannot ask for more from our children than Christ himself gave to All Holy Mary and St. Joseph. Our children too will make their own decisions on their own terms, at the times they choose and in their own way. Like All Holy Mary and St. Joseph, we would like to know where they are and what they are doing when they do not tell us. Such is life both in first century Palestine and in the global world of the twenty-first century.
However, note that the only other event described in the Gospels about the life of Christ from when He was a baby until when He began His public ministry was the Flight to Egypt, demonstrating the determination of both St. Joseph and All Holy Mary to protect Christ from harm. We too have that responsibility; and the older our children become, I think the harder it is to exercise that responsibility. Yet if we as parents pray for our children and treasure in our hearts what they tell us, they too, like Christ, can learn to make their own decisions. Let us pray fervently that those decisions will give them the strength to grow “in wisdom and the grace of God” just as happened to the Son of All Holy Mary, and the person who protected both All Holy Mary and Her Son so well—St. Joseph.
As parents, let us be deeply encouraged that the only two events described in the gospels between the first few weeks of the life of Christ on earth and the thirty years until the beginning of His public ministry are family events—the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt and the desperate search for Christ for two days by All Holy Mary and St. Joseph when they discovered after “a day’s journey” that He was not “in the caravan,” with their friends and companions (Luke 2:43-46). They thought He was lost—lost to them and to the community. But no! No! Christ was not lost to them nor to the community! On the contrary, Christ had broken the bonds of His family in Nazareth by beginning His work on earth. So may it be for all Jewish and Christian families!