“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.
Initially let us remark how the Holy Family did exemplify the teaching we have heard from the two previous readings: Mary herself showed honour and respect for Joseph in her words and attitude:
Son, why have you done this? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.
Joseph showed his reverence and love for Mary by allowing her to speak first, giving her both emotional relief in her sovereign maternal solicitude for her Son, and first expression to their mutual longing and anxiety to understand Jesus’ strange behaviour.
Jesus too, first of all recognizes and commiserates with Mary and Joseph’s concern with gentle words of sympathy:
Why were you looking for me (upsetting yourselves so much)?
Then He proceeded to make clear, as best He could, what had been going on in His heart and mind recently:
Did you not know that I must be in My Father’s house (for none but my heavenly Father could possibly lead Me to absent Myself from returning with you in the caravan … surely you knew that!)?
The Boy Jesus – humanly speaking, He was in some most important aspects, still a boy – did not fully realize the impact of those words! For the very first time He had called the God of Israel -- Whom they all, in accordance with Israel’s ancient and traditional Law, had been on pilgrimage to Jerusalem to worship and honour in the Temple, His very own House – His, Personal, Father!
Those words I must be in My Father’s house are also seriously translated I must be about My Father’s business: neither translation excludes the other, neither alone can give the full content of Jesus’ words.
Moreover, in the intimate inner circle of family life His words were most disturbing, since they could appear to be in contradiction with Mary’s carefully chosen ‘adult’ words:
Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.
There had always been in the hearts and minds of Mary and Joseph – amid the wondrous amazement, gratitude, and countless joys Jesus gave them – a hidden anxiety about how best to bring up such a child: the One they had both taken, many years ago, to the Temple to present Him originally to God as Mary’s God-given son. They had both endeavoured to live their lives in His sight and for His guidance, as true Israelites. Without doubt, Mary’s every word and gesture as she lived her extremely busy round of family, social, and religious duties bespoke her love of God and Israel’s faith, and she must – frequently -- have shared with her Son her most intimate thoughts and experiences of the great goodness, wondrous beauty, and awesome justice, of God. Joseph, likewise, had his own indispensable role and function to fulfil: he had to be the man for this wondrous Boy: teaching Him responsibility in His work for and relationships with others, above all with and for His mother; it was by following Joseph’s example that Jesus learned how to love the person and appreciate the sensitivity of Mary, whilst at the same time fitting into the world of working men and gradually advancing in His God-given ‘favour’ among them. Joseph would have taken Him regularly (Sabbath, and market days Monday and Thursday) to the synagogue for readings and explanation of the Law and prophets, together with common prayers (Sh’ma – Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is One); and it was at the synagogue where Jesus learnt to hear and understand, to read and write, the holy language of His people.
Let us now humbly try to discern what may have been taking place in the mind and heart of the Boy over the years of His hidden home life in Nazareth, before culminating in that short period of three days when He was alone in Jerusalem.
During those three days, what was the business that Jesus was about, engaged in, that He found so important and demanding?
He was celebrating His new majority, adult-standing, before the Law; above all He was delighting in God His Father through sharing in the Temple worship, and then participating in the regular teaching and discussion sessions -- given, held, by scribes and elders in the adjacent Temple buildings -- something not unexpected, indeed welcomed, for one who, though only twelve or thirteen years old, was now responsible before the Law:
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.
He was delighting in His Father, and also acknowledging and appreciating the centuries’ old fidelity of His Jewish forebears towards God’s word and God’s worship.
Notice that this love of the boy-become-man-according-to-the-Law, this love of Jesus for His Father in heaven was an intensely personal and deeply passionate love. It was not a distant admiration and compartmentalized commitment, one that could be appreciated objectively and weighed in the scales against other loves and other, corresponding, commitments. No! It was a passionate and compelling love which would brook no compare. This consuming love of the boy Jesus ‘for His Father’s business’ had been originally nourished by the teaching of His mother Mary, for she undoubtedly taught Him much about the Psalms of Israel and the words of the prophets calling for love and obedience toward God and fellow-feeling in community and society. It was, however, above all her humility that was ever a beacon for Him Who would eventually sacrifice Himself for the sins of men.
This Child absorbed the teaching of His mother to such an extent that He understood the Psalms of which she spoke so well, far, far more that she was aware of! He learnt to read the sacred Scriptures she so honoured and treasured with such sympathetic awareness and profound responsiveness that they became for Him a personal communion with the Author of those Scriptures, a communion wherein the Boy ‘discovered’ Himself and was guided to that appreciation of His Father which the Scriptures themselves foretold:
My Word that goes forth from My mouth shall not return to Me void, but shall do My will, achieving the end for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:11s.)
The Boy’s subsequent awareness and understanding of His adulthood -- His ‘bar mitsva’ acceptation before the Law; His experience of adult worship in His Father’s house, and listening to and participating in the glorification of Israel’s God ‘in the midst of teachers’; all this was greater than anything He had previously experienced ... He was enraptured ... He would not turn from all that to join the caravan with Mary and Joseph and go back to Nazareth ... He remained three days in Jerusalem.
However, this young Man’s sublime delight in and total commitment to His now to-be-openly-acknowledged Father was not quite the same thing as His adult ‘commissioning’ by the Father for His ultimate mission. His human understanding was still developing and so -- as was fitting for One still subject in society to His earthly parents -- the words of Mary, with Joseph’s backing, had weight enough to call Him back to an objective appreciation of His obligations as ‘their’ child. When such obligations would be removed, however, His delighting in, loving and communing with, His heavenly Father, would inevitably take over His whole life and claim His total and absolute commitment. In the meantime, He had made clear the essential point:
Did you not know that I must be in My Father’s house ... about My Father’s business?
It was by observing His mother Mary’s attitude and bearing that Jesus had learnt to respect Joseph as His earthly father; nevertheless, Mary and Joseph, when the time had come, were both taken totally unawares by Jesus’ behaviour at that year’s pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover celebrations. There had always been a certain silence, otherness, about Jesus … didn’t His disciples experience it as they used to walk together behind Jesus as they went about Israel with Him? Words were not cheap with Jesus nor were His thoughts, feelings, and emotions easily traceable and recognizable … He was ‘his own man’ as a common expression would put it. But that is not correct, not accurate, enough, for Jesus was ‘God’s man’, above all and in all He was ‘His Father’s Son’. However, we are told that He learned to control His enthusiasm, to listen more patiently and ever more attentively to and for His heavenly Father, and:
He went down with them to Nazareth, and was obedient to them.
Oh the humility of God made man! He went back to family life in Nazareth and was obedient: He would calmly love and reverence His earthly parents as He awaited His Father to call Him, to ‘commission’ Him. Learning ever more of God His Father, He continued to humble Himself before the men and women He served in His recognized work as carpenter with Joseph, to respect those among whom He dwelt, and in all such relationships to quietly encourage and confirm their awareness of God as He shared with them His understanding and Truth, His goodness and Love:
Jesus advanced (in) wisdom and age and favour before God and man.