When Mary and Joseph finally realise that the boy was missing they were panic-stricken.

The New Testament gives us tantalisingly few glimpses into the thirty years of Jesus’ life in Nazareth, one of the reasons why the apocryphal gospels, out of an understandable but mistaken sense of devotion, conjure up all sorts of legendary tales about Christ’s early years. One episode that we do get, in St Luke’s Gospel (Luke 2:41-52), is the story of Jesus lost and found in the Temple at twelve years of age. From the context it is clear that the source of the story is his mother Mary.

The outline is simple enough. The Holy Family travel up to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover. On the return journey, “the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, but supposing him to be in the company they went a day’s journey, and they sought him among their kinsfolk and acquaintances”. One is astonished at the level of freedom Jesus enjoyed, that he could go an entire day without being sought for, quite in contrast with the helicopter parents of today. Presumably it was normal: other children would have had the same freedom.

When Mary and Joseph finally realise that the boy is missing they are panic-stricken. They return to Jerusalem immediately and seek him everywhere. What can have happened? Could he have been kidnapped? Such things were common enough. Wandering orphans were in danger of being taken and sold as slaves, as indeed was Joseph the son of Jacob, at a similar age to Jesus, and sold into slavery by his own brothers (Gen 37).

Finally, on the third day they find him in the Temple, “sitting among the doctors”. The dialogue which ensues is surprising and enigmatic, an invitation to contemplation if we are to tease out its meaning. Mary reproaches Jesus, gently but clearly: “Son, why have you done this to us?” She realises that Jesus’ action of not informing them was deliberate.

Jesus’ answer is equally enigmatic: “Did you not know I must be about my Father’s business?” At first sight this could be read as “I have some very important business to attend to”, but that doesn’t explain the lack of communication. Surely Jesus wasn’t just trying to assert his independence, a typical teenage reaction?

We find it hard to credit that Jesus could be deliberately setting out to hurt his mother. The answer to the question can be found, I think, in other passages of the Gospel. Firstly, a little earlier in St Luke’s narrative, when twelve years earlier Mary and Joseph bring the infant Jesus to the Temple, they are met by the old man Simeon who, among other prophecies, tells Mary that a sword of sorrow shall pierce her heart. Her Son would be the sword. This event is intended for Mary’s benefit, part of her preparation for her mission.

This is clearly suggested by another Gospel passage, this time St John’s account of the wedding feast at Cana (John 2:1-11), where Jesus turns water into wine. Mary is the first to notice that the wine is running out, and instinctively goes to her Son for help, with the question which is not a question: “They have no wine”. Jesus appears to brush her off: Why are you bringing this to me? He says. “My hour has not yet come”. The hour is the hour of his passion, when Mary will be found standing beside the Cross, an event which certainly needed preparation.

Just so that we wouldn’t end up with the wrong impression of a rebellious teenager, St Luke ends his account with the statement “He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them”. In other words he was, as every mother would like her son to be, “a very good boy”. And finally, “his mother kept all these things in her heart”. Mary is a contemplative. When later she is called upon to recount the story of Jesus’ early years, she picks this incident out as the most relevant, as indeed it is.

By Fr. Brian McCarthy