This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 2:41–52:
Each year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, and when he was twelve years old, they went up according to festival custom. After they had completed its days, as they were returning, the boy Jesus remained behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Thinking that he was in the caravan, they journeyed for a day and looked for him among their relatives and acquaintances, but not finding him, they returned to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions, and all who heard him were astounded at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished, and his mother said to him, “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.” And he said to them, “Why were you looking 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. He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart. And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man.
Ever momentarily lose your child in a store? Or have you ever been the child lost in the store? When I was little — but not so little to not know better — I wandered off in a department store from where I was supposed to be. I decided that I knew better than my dad about where I could go and what I could see while he paid for something at the checkout stand. When Dad finally caught up to me, he didn’t exactly proclaim that he’d “been looking for me with great anxiety.” He did say a number of other things that caused me great anxiety, as you might imagine.
I went back out to the car with Dad. Can’t say that I was obedient to him in everything after that, but I certainly learned a lesson about wandering off.
That experience comes to mind every time this reading comes up at Mass. Looking back as an adult, the fear and panic of having a lost child becomes overwhelmingly obvious, even when the child itself doesn’t believe himself lost at all. The times were simpler in my childhood than now too, or at least they seem that way. When Mary asks, “Son, why have you done this to us?”, it’s a real and human reaction for parents to have — even when they know that the Lord has a special mission for their son.
So why did Jesus stay behind in the temple? Our first reading from Samuel reminds us that those consecrated to the Lord’s service would enter that service at a very young age. Samuel’s mother presents him at the temple at an even earlier age, not long after he had been weaned, in order to give his whole life in service. Hannah explains to Eli, the priest who had heard her prayers for a child and blessed her, that the Lord’s gift to her should be for His glory, and left him with Eli. Samuel becomes a prophet rescues Israel from the Philistines, and later anoints both Saul and David as king.
At twelve years of age, Jesus was old enough by this time for His family to consider what path he would take — as a tradesman or as a scholar. The Lord chose a life of poverty for the Messiah, but this was an early sign that Jesus would contend with the most scholarly members of the temple authority. He clearly had the talent, the insight, and the heart to be one of the leading figures in that temple authority, had He chosen that path.
So why didn’t Jesus choose to follow that ambition? It would have led to a more comfortable life for his parents than the carpentry trade that Joseph and later Jesus pursued. He would have risen in authority, with the ability to spread His message farther, wider, and with more worldly credibility. The reading today states that He left with His parents in obedience to them, but they surely would not have objected if Jesus explained that this path was the Lord’s calling.
The obvious answer is that Jesus didn’t want or need the temple authority for His teachings — and that the temple authority was part of the problem He wanted to resolve. But that’s too narrow and too mechanical for a complete answer. The Lord came among the poor for a reason — not as a revolutionary, but to provide comfort and a mark of the Lord’s love for the meek and humble. Jesus was a sign of that love and comfort, and remains so to this day, not because He expressed theological sympathy for the poor but because He chose to live among them and share their poverty.
This episode in the temple shows that this was a purposeful choice, made not just by the Father but also by the Son. It is a demonstration of meekness and one particular aspect of how Christ exemplified it. He had the power and authority to set Himself up as a temporal leader, but chose not to use His power and authority in that manner. Instead, He reserved His power and authority to use it for the benefit of those who needed it the most. That is the model of meekness Christ taught in the Beatitudes — “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”
It also demonstrates the loving gift of God in another way, a reversal of sorts from our first reading. Hannah presents her firstborn son to serve Eli and the temple, in gratitude for the gift of having conceived with the help of the Lord. This passage makes clear that the Lord has returned the favor by presenting His only Son to the poor for their service — from the temple itself, as this passage shows. It is a completion of love between the Lord and His people, one which culminates in the Passion and Resurrection.
As John writes in our second reading today, we have become God’s children through Christ. In this Christmas season and as we enter another new year, this serves as a reminder to us of the great gift of God’s love for us, and the service to which it calls us. Jesus comes to us where we are, to find us and give us comfort and hope. Let us rejoice and be glad.
The front-page image is a detail from “Cristo tra i dottori” (Christ among the doctors) by Bernardo Luini, c. 1515-30. On display at the National Gallery in the UK, via Wikimedia Commons.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.