When modern readers read the account of the Finding of Jesus in the Temple in Luke 2:41–52, most tend to think, “How could responsible parents lose their kid like that? And how could Mary and Joseph, knowing how special Jesus was, lose track of him?”
Given our modern sensibilities, it is a puzzle, but it’s not so puzzling when we understand what was really going on.
Families didn’t travel alone to Jerusalem for the Passover festival. They travelled in groups of relatives and friends. Indeed, most of the village of Nazareth probably made the trek together. Think of it as sort of a camping caravan, with various groups meeting together the closer they got to the city. It would have been a sort of joyful yet chaotic mess, with kids running about and friends and families meeting up, perhaps for the first time in a year.
Now it’s important to realize that the sexes would have been segregated during the trek. Boys under the age of thirteen were considered children, and they would have travelled with the women and other children. Boys aged thirteen and older were considered men and would have been traveling with the men.
Recall also that this was the year that Jesus turned twelve. At age thirteen, he would have been considered a man, but age twelve was right on the cusp. (And given that we don’t know exactly what time of year Jesus was born, it’s even possible that he was quite close to his thirteenth birthday at the time of Passover.) He could have been thought of as a child still, but he also could have been considered a man.
So, let’s set the scene. The festival is over, and Mary and Joseph head home. Mary assumes that Jesus is now with Joseph because he is a “man.” Joseph assumes Jesus is with Mary because he is still a “child.” Neither of them is concerned until they make camp for the night and begin to look for Jesus. That’s when they discover he is nowhere to be found.
Imagine their absolute terror. It would be as if a small-town kid were lost in LA, Chicago, or New York. Also imagine the guilt both Mary and Joseph would have been feeling. It would have been every parent’s nightmare. Jesus could have been abused, sold into slavery, or even killed. Nothing good was going to come from losing your child.
The Gospel then says, “But not finding him, they returned to Jerusalem to look for him” (2:45). Those few unassuming words should remind us that regardless of who Jesus was or what he would become, he was, at this time, just Mary and Joseph’s beloved son, and they were probably in a state of abject panic.
If nothing helps us understand who Joseph was and what his role in Jesus’ life was, then this incident in which we see him as a terrified parent should.
“With a father’s heart: that is how Joseph loved Jesus, whom all four Gospels refer to as ‘the son of Joseph.’” –Pope Francis
Saint Joseph, help me to always remember that you were first and foremost a parent to Jesus. When I need some strength and guidance in dealing with either my own children or children in my care, may I always remember to turn to you. Amen.
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