Many years ago, when our two daughters were very young, approximately two and four years of age, we were vacationing in Williamsburg, Virginia over the fourth of July. One evening we sat on the lawn of the restored colonial capital to watch the fireworks that night. As we waited for it to get dark, right in front of us was another family with young children. Alyssa and Courtney began to interact with their new found young friends and they played together while we waited. Of course, as watchful and somewhat paranoid parents, we kept an eagle eye on our children. But at one moment, and it was a brief moment, we took our eyes off them and when we looked up, Alyssa was gone. We began to look around, but could not see her. All of a sudden, I could feel the hair on the back of neck literally stand on end. We got up from the blanket we were sitting on, and began to call out to our daughter, but there was no answer. With my heart racing a mile a minute, both Carol and I flanked out to search, calling as we walked. At that moment, I looked to my left, and there was Alyssa looking rather scared as she searched for us. It took only a few moments, but she had accidently, in the midst of having a good time, wandered away; and even though she was not more than a hundred feet from us, in the middle of a huge crowd it felt like several miles.
For those few brief moments, which seemed like an eternity for me, I was scared to death not knowing where my daughter was. Is it even possible to imagine the sustained panic that Mary and Joseph must have felt as they made their way, over an entire day, back to Jerusalem in frantic search for their twelve year old son, Jesus? Moreover, is it possible to visualize even further how they must have felt in the three total days it took to find him?
According to Jewish law, males were required to attend the three annual festivals of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles in Jerusalem. As time went on and Jews were dispersed over a wide geographical area, which made traveling long distances difficult, the rabbis relaxed the annual requirement. By Jesus' day, a Jewish man was obligated to attend Passover at least once during his lifetime, though no doubt, those who lived not too far away, traveled more often. Since Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth, which was approximately 240 miles from Jerusalem, traveling annually on foot or by donkey to the Holy City would not have been a difficult chore for such hearty people.
As Jesus' parents prepare to leave for home, they are part of a caravan. Traveling with other families was done primarily for the safety reasons. The highways in first-century Israel were littered with bandits looking to rob the unsuspecting and defenseless traveler. The old adage that there is safety in numbers was just as true in Jesus’ day as in ours.
As the caravan, of which Mary and Joseph and Jesus are a part, gets underway, Jesus' parents seem to assume that he is with other children from their home village or whom he has befriended along the way. But as they get a days' journey away from Jerusalem, their nightmare begins—Jesus is nowhere to be found. Panic ensues. Hastily, they return to Jerusalem, and after three frantic days and sleepless nights, they find Jesus in the Temple.
It is not necessarily surprising that they find Jesus in the Temple precinct. Several thousand people visited the Temple each day. In fact, Mary and Joseph probably reasoned that if Jesus was looking for them, he would go to the Temple, the most likely place he would find them.
But the shock of the story comes not that he is found at the Temple, but that he is there, very much unconcerned about being separated from his parents; indeed, he is there conversing with the teachers of the law, the clergy, if your will, and astounding them with his knowledge of the deep things of God.
It is almost as if there are two narratives taking place here. There is the surface narrative--Jesus parents' are frantic in searching for him-- and when they find him, they scold him for his inattentiveness. Yet, there appears to be a second and a deeper storyline. The young boy Jesus, in the Temple, talking, not to the teachers in curious ignorance, but in asking and answering as a sage and a scholar prior to the formal recognition of his adulthood at thirteen, at his bar-mitzvah. Here is a deeper glimpse, not of a boy who is curious the way a child is curious about a ladybug in the garden or over the wind blowing through the trees. Here is a young man, who even before his official entry into adulthood, knows that he has a mission, who understands that his life is about something more than the beating of his heart and the breaths that he takes. "Why are you looking for me?" he asks of his parents. "Did you not know that I must be about my Heavenly Father's business?" Perhaps Mary and Joseph did not, but Jesus clearly did.
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I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)