Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover. When he was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom. After the festival was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.” “Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he was saying to them. Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man. (Luke 2:41-52 NIV)
Just after I turned twelve years old our family moved back to Australia from England. We had lived in England for three years because of my father’s job. They were formative years for me and when we went “home” I felt that I was leaving myself behind. Those three years had changed me to an English boy, but I was not born there and had no opportunity to remain. I was only twelve years old, still dependent on my parents, and I was bound to go where they went.
But I had begun to become my own person and there was a conflict in me between who I was by birth and heritage and what I was beginning to realise was “the real me.” It was a painful time and the identity crisis that ensued has coloured my experience of life ever since. Now, some forty years later, I still often wonder who I really am, and where I fit in. And I am still struggling with “leaving England,” though I don’t even live there.
This story at the end of Luke chapter 2 describes Jesus’s emerging identity at the age of twelve, when he was beginning to realise that he was more than just his parents’ son, that there was a “real him” which was beginning to demand attention, both from himself and from those around him. It is an odd story in some ways. How could parents travel a whole day without noticing that their twelve year old son was not with them? How could Jesus, who was said to be an obedient child, sit in the temple for two days and nights without getting into a panic about the absence of his parents?
And yet things like this can easily happen. Mary and Joseph were comfortable with the group they travelled with, and confident in Jesus’ ability to take care of himself, assuming that he was with them even if he was not immediately beside them. Perhaps Mary and Joseph were not walking together, perhaps they had left Jerusalem at different times and with different groups, and each assumed that Jesus was with the other. For whatever reason, Jesus has been left behind, as odd as it might seem.
I remember a similar thing happening to our family when I was a child, and my little brother, who could not have been more than 6 years old, was left behind after we had stopped at a roadside rest place when were travelling away on holidays. We piled back into the car to leave, but he did not get in, having wandered off somewhere. My sister and I said nothing, thinking it was quite a joke and wondering how long it would take our parents to realise that there was one missing. It was not many minutes before the mistake was revealed and the car was turned and we were back at the place we had just left, my mother in a panic, my father furious at us for not saying anything. Such things can happen, and it happened to Mary and Joseph, as irresponsible as it may appear to be. They too were in a panic when they realised their son was not with them.
But this story illustrates another normality of life with children which can be confusing, even bewildering, for us parents. They grow up and become their own people. It is not clear whether Jesus had been to Jerusalem every year since his birth, even if his parents had. This may well have been the first time since his birth he had been to the big city. It may even have been the first time he had been in the temple since he was there as a baby, when Simeon and Anna saw him and revealed his identity to the people around. Or perhaps he had been there every year with his parents. But this year was different because he was 12 years old and that was the age at which boys entered adulthood. It was a special time for Jewish boys and Jesus was no exception. But it seems unlikely that any of his friends of the same age had quite the awakening of identity what Jesus had when he entered the temple. It is unlikely any of them reacted in the same way as Jesus to the teaching of the priests.
Jesus sat there transfixed, because he realised that what they were talking about spoke to him about who he was. He recognised their words, not necessarily because he had studied them all his life, but because he recognised his Father’s voice. The things he heard were familiar in a way that he could not quite understand, they spoke to him of something much deeper than simply the words could convey. He recognised his Father’s voice in a way that only a child can. He didn’t just hear his Father, he felt him. In that moment, in his mind, he saw his Father’s face.
But somehow he knew that what he was hearing was not quite right. The words were correct but the spirit of what they were teaching lacked something, in some way didn’t get quite to the point. He heard them telling a story that they had been told but which he knew was not 100% accurate, and perhaps even he wondered how he knew it. He asked questions, drawing the teachers out, exploring in his own mind as he spoke the ideas and concepts and laws that they were propagating. I don’t think he was trying to catch them out. I think he was just wondering, about what he heard, about the people who were teaching it, about himself, who he was and where he came from, about what his life meant, what he was on the earth for. The teachers looked at the boy with curiosity and amazement. His questions were not the sort of questions that people usually asked. An insightful person may have recognised a boy in a process of self-discovery. The priests must have wondered who this child was. Did they ask him? Did they wonder where his parents were? What did Jesus say to them really?
It is an important time for all children, as they enter what we now call the teenage years. My own three children are all in that place now – teenagehood – and I watch with amazement as their own identity struggles unfold. Who are they? Where and to whom do they belong? What is the meaning of their lives? What are they going to do, and where are they going to go, and who are they going to be with?
My desire, as for all believing parents, is that the words and actions of God, as they come to know and understand them, will strike a chord with them, perhaps not the same chord that Jesus heard, but a chord nevertheless, a chord of recognition. That as they hear God’s voice spoken out by others, or recorded in the Bible, or in the Holy Spirit’s quiet whispering in their ears, that they will recognise their true Father, the one who knew them before they were even conceived and who already treasured them in his heart, was already planning for them a life of wonder and excitement. And if they get so caught up in the words and teaching of their heavenly Father that they forget me and their mother for a few days then I will only be happy.
It is always scary to realise your child is missing, to feel nauseating panic rising in your stomach as you wonder where you left him or her and what you have done. What better to make the panic melt away than to find him or her sitting entranced by their heavenly Father to the extent that everything else has slipped from their mind. Jesus said to his parents – you should have known that I would be in my Father’s house. Perhaps they had forgotten the words of Anna and Simeon 12 years earlier. But they would not forget again. Each time one of these extraordinary things happened another memory was laid down, a memory that she would relate to Luke many years later. Each time something happened she became more aware that the child she had borne was not an ordinary child, and that he would change the world.