Sunday after Epiphany
Today’s Gospel presents us with the episode of what is known as the loss and finding of the Child Jesus in the Temple. It is a fascinating story with details that touch us profoundly. Let’s try to follow.
Mary and Joseph go up to Jerusalem from Nazareth for the solemn feast of the Passover. This was probably the first time Jesus went with them, as it was from this age of twelve that boys were expected to make the annual pilgrimage. The solemnities of the feast being over, they make ready to return to Nazareth. In those days, the common way of making the trip was to walk with others in caravan. Since many of the Jews made the journey, it was easy to organise such travel. Usually the men and the women travelled separately. Jesus is at an age at which it was permissible for Him to travel either with his father or with his mother, which no doubt explains that each of them were thinking He was with the other. For Mary and Joseph, it is easily understood how the mistake could have been made. However, for the boy Jesus, it is not possible for Him to have unintentionally been lost. There had to be a moment when He knowingly left them, fully conscious of what He was doing, fully aware of the strife it would cause His good parents.
This is the first mystery. While St Luke tells us at the end of the episode that He went with them to Nazareth, and was submissive to them, here there seems to be a show of independence that, in anyone else, could be taken for the impudent folly of an adolescent. But of course our Lord, adolescent though He was, had too much love and respect for Mary and Joseph to even think of such a course of action. There was something else, namely the call of God the Father. It is very simple. God the Father beckoned to Him to stay in the Temple, leaving His Mother and foster father, in spite of the pain it would cause them.
This is why this episode is seen as the story of a religious vocation. God calls a person to enter the religious life, leaving family, friends and home, and that call is very rarely understood and accepted by those who are left behind. But the call comes first and there can be no hesitation once it is heard with clarity. The French school of spirituality which included such great names as Cardinal de Berulle, Abbé Condren, Abbé Olier, St Francis de Sales and St Louis de Montfort, had as one of its hallmarks the consideration of Jesus as the Religious of the Father, the One who exemplifies in the perfect way the model of the religious soul who is entirely turned towards the eternal Father and desirous of fulfilling His will. Later, Our Lord will remark: I always do the things that please him. (Jn 8:29).
So it is here, Jesus goes to the Temple where He will spend three days. What did He do during those days? He prayed with the temple levites who sang the psalms at fixed hours (like a monk!). He prayed alone, continuing that intimate commerce with the Father that He began at the moment of His conception in Our Lady’s womb. He also listened to the teachers of the Law of Moses who were there and asked them questions, never hearing enough about God and His holy religion. In this way, the three days passed swiftly.
Meanwhile, Mary and Joseph were in torment. The first day of the journey (it was roughly a week’s journey back home) went fairly well, for even though neither of them saw Jesus, they were blissfully ignorant that He was not with the group, each of them thinking He was with the other. But at the end of the day’s march, when men and women would regroup, the tragic reality unveils itself to them both. “Where is Jesus? He’s not with you? No, I thought He was with you! Oh my, He must be with some of the boys, let’s go look”. But the look proves fruitless, no one has seen Jesus since the morning.
It is simply not possible for us to imagine the depth of anguish that seized the sacred hearts of Mary and Joseph at that moment. A thousand thoughts race through their minds. Joseph, the head of the Holy Family, is afraid He has failed God’s trust. He has lost the pearl of great price, the treasure of the universe. “What shall I do? Where shall I go?” Mary, for her part, remembering the prophecy of Simeon about the sword of sorrow, is thinking that maybe the hour has already come. He has been taken, and perhaps at this very moment is bring tortured to death, and “I am not there to help! So the tragedy begins.” In this way both of them are tormented, bitterly regretting their lack of attentiveness in the morning.
As this first day draws to a close, however, there is nothing for it but to wait till the next day, and both of them pass a sleepless night. At the crack of dawn, they leave the caravan, retracing their long march of the preceding day, and arriving in the evening at Jerusalem and start looking for the Boy in every imaginable place. Once again the night forces them to stop and a second sleepless night they must endure. On the third day they resume their search, going over in their minds all the places they had been in, the various relatives and friends to whom they had paid visits. None of them has seen Jesus.
Finally at the end of this third day, at the brink of despair they decide to turn to the Lord. They go up to the Temple with broken hearts to weep before the Lord and humble themselves for what they perceive as a terrible disaster. Wandering around the temple, remembering the moments when they prayed there just a few days earlier with the Boy, they hear voices coming from one of the rooms adjacent to the temple area. As they approach, they distinguish one voice that is familiar – it is Jesus! Rushing in upon the scene, Mary embraces her Son in front of all the elder scribes who are there, with whom He had been speaking, asking them questions and answering in turn the questions they put to Him. All were in admiration at the wisdom of such a young boy.
But Mother Mary is hurt. With all her love and respect for her Son, whom she knows to be the Son of God, she cannot refrain from a maternal complaint: Son, why hast Thou done so to us? In sorrow your father and I were seeking you. But Jesus, with apparent coldness, replies: How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must about my Father’s business? Mary was referring to Joseph, the early guardian and foster-father, Jesus’ father in the eyes of the world. But Jesus lifts up their thoughts and reminds them that His real Father is in Heaven, and when the Eternal Father calls, there can be no hesitation. Not even the bonds of blood matter any more. God is first to be served.
The mystery of this story is the mystery of God’s dealings with souls that He chooses and calls to something higher. St Paul tell us that God inhabiteth light inaccessible, whom no man hath seen, nor can see (1 Tim 6:16). It is to that light that we are called, but we can only reach it by accepting to pass through the darkness of trial and suffering, for these are the only path to the purification required to see God. That purification was not spared Mary and Joseph. Mary who was sinless came to know the darkness of being separated from God during those three days, which also prefigure the three days Our Lord was in the grave. She who was immaculate and even at her birth of greater sanctity then all the saints combined, nevertheless grew through this painful episode, and learned more about the ways of God. Through the journey in the dark she came closer to the light.
It is a solace for us to know that Mary and Joseph did not understand. They did not understand Jesus’ words of explanation, nor why He put them through that ordeal. All they could do was trust that if He did, there was good reason for it. And so it is with us. Often we do not know why we have to suffer such and such a pain, humiliation, separation, or whatever befalls us. But there is a reason. There are often many reasons, but the fundamental reason is this: God wants us to learn how to suffer without consolation and thus resemble His Son more and more. That alone is the path to consummate virtue and sanctity. Until we learn that lesson, we remain like hirelings working for a salary. But when we start to learn it, our relationship with the Lord becomes more and more what it really should be, the heart to heart that never ceases, the absolute freedom to go and do whatever God is asking us to do, because it is no longer about us, but about Him.
And if all that seems to be somewhat too lofty, let us ask Mother Mary to teach us how to ponder these events, like she did, in her Heart.