The lost children of Gemco: Sunday reflection

Ludovico Mazzolino / Wikimedia Commons

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.

A few years ago, on another occasion, I told the story of how I learned a valuable lesson about wandering off in a crowd from my parents. (“Valuable” as in “how to avoid Dad’s wrath” valuable, of course.) When I decided to do my own thing in the local Gemco, I was only a couple of years younger than Jesus was in this Gospel reading. I reflected mainly on my own perspective and a little of Mary’s panic at having lost her beloved son, her gift from the Lord and her charge to keep safe.

There is more to plumb from Mary’s perspective, however, than from the perspective of Jesus. Even at this young age, Jesus knew what His mission would be; Mary, like most parents, would have been filled with anxiety at his momentary loss. More than most parents, Mary would have wondered what the Lord had in store for her son, and how that mission would manifest itself. That was probably especially true after this episode, a point Luke appears to suggest by noting that Mary “kept all these things in her heart.”

This would also be true of Hannah in our first reading today from 1 Samuel. The prophet Samuel does not wander away from Hannah, however. Having begged the Lord for a son, Hannah consecrates Samuel to His service as soon as the baby is weaned. She offers up this beloved son, whom she desired more than anything else, back to the Lord who gave Hannah this gift. We read later in 1 Samuel that Hannah would bring Samuel a new robe each year at the sacrifice when she visited him in Eli’s service, and the Lord blessed the previously barren Hannah with three more sons and two daughters. Samuel ends up supplanting Eli’s wicked sons as the prophet of Israel.

In this case, Samuel was hardly “lost” in the same sense that Jesus was at the temple at twelve, or I was in the department store. Hannah had given Samuel to Eli and knew where he was, but the separation from her son had to be devastating nonetheless. In Hannah’s tale, a child for her husband was all she wanted, and when she gave him up, she had no idea what would become of him or her. All she could do is put her trust and hope in the Lord.

Mary’s plight would be even more anxious, even apart from the episode in the temple. Jesus had come to her through the Holy Spirit directly, not as an intercession in marital fertility, which was unprecedented. For what purpose would the Lord do this? And when would Mary have to part with Jesus so that He could fulfill His Father’s mission, and what form would it take? As much joy as Mary would have had in motherhood, these questions had to dangle over her like a Sword of Damocles on a very thin string. His sudden departure from the caravan wouldn’t have just produced the panic that any parent feels at a lost child, but on top of that a worry that the Lord had abruptly taken Jesus to begin His mission and that her days as a mother had come to an effective end.

But there is yet another parent whose perspective we have not yet considered: The Lord Himself. He didn’t lose Jesus, of course; the Father knew the Son and the Son knew the Father. Jesus makes a point of explaining that He is “in my Father’s house.” The question is why the rest of us aren’t. These episodes remind us how we have wandered off from the Lord, abusing our gift of free will to leave him in the giant “department store” of His creation. He gave Adam and Eve that gift, only to have them turn their backs on Him and attempt to usurp His authority. Each succeeding generation brought Him more abandonment by those He loves.

In fact, if we read further into 1 Samuel, we get three separate parallels to this betrayal. As I mentioned earlier, the mighty prophet Eli has his house destroyed by the wickedness and rebellion of his two sons, which leads to Samuel’s succession as the prophet of Israel. This pattern then repeats itself in 1 Samuel 8, in which Samuel attempts to place his own sons in the priestly offices that ruled Israel at the time. Instead of governing wisely and honestly, Samuel’s sons also “accepted bribes and perverted justice,” turning away from their father’s integrity and dedication to the Lord.

Finally, in reaction to this, the people of Israel rebel against God Himself. Rather than allow Samuel to find a worthy prophet to act as the Lord’s steward for His direct kingship, the Israelites insist that Samuel appoint a king from among themselves. The Lord comforts Samuel and tells him that this is nothing new:

And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.”

Jesus is not lost in today’s Gospel; He is actively searching for those who are lost on behalf of His Father. Mary, who is not lost herself, feels His absence most acutely while the rest of humanity has deadened itself to that sense of dislocation. It is we who are lost, and it is our Father who seeks us out so fervently that He sends His righteous Son to lead us back to Him — even making Jesus’ death at our hands a gateway for our eventual salvation.

Our Advent season of hope and joy calls us to open our hearts to the Father’s call, and to yearn for that Trinitarian relationship, on His terms rather than ours. Or, perhaps more accurately, to form ourselves so that His terms are our terms and that we trust and hope in Him just as Hannah and Mary did. Only then will we discover our true home, and allow ourselves to be found by the Father who loves us.

The front-page image is a detail from “Twelve-Year-Old Jesus Teaching in the Temple” by Ludovico Mazzolino, 1524. On display at the Gemaeldegalerie in Berlin. 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.