The Holy Family used to go to Jerusalem every year for the feast of the Passover. When Jesus was twelve, the age of Jewish adulthood with obligations to practise the religion, Jesus continued in the Temple actively involving in theological discussions with scholars. Joseph and Mary proceeded with their return home from Jerusalem, unaware that Jesus was not in their caravan. Having suddenly noticed his absence, a three- day-long search led them back to Jerusalem where they found him in the Temple engrossed in serious religious discussions. Jesus returned to Nazareth with his parents and subjected to their authority and supported the family. The Holy Family is a role model for us to get involved in religious practices and in submitting to the authorities.
BIBLE TEXT (LUKE 2:41-52)
The Boy Jesus in the Temple
(Lk 2:41) Every year the parents of Jesus went to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover as was customary. (42) And when Jesus was twelve years old, he went up with them according to the custom for this feast. (43) After the festival was over, they returned, but the boy Jesus remained in Jerusalem and his parents did not know it. (44) Thinking that he was in the company of the travelers they went a day’s journey. Then they looked for him among their relatives and friends. (45) As they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem looking for him, (46) and after three days they found him in the Temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. (47) And all the people were amazed at his understanding and his answers.
(48) His parents were very surprised when they saw him, and his mother said to him, “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been very worried while searching for you.” (49) Then he said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (50) But they did not understand what he was saying to them. (51) Jesus went down with them, returning to Nazareth, and he continued to be under their authority. As for his mother, she kept all these things in her heart. (52) And Jesus increased in wisdom and in age and in grace with God and men.
The Boy Jesus in the Temple
(Lk 2:41) “Every year the parents of Jesus went to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover as was customary.”
According to the ordinances the LORD gave through Moses, “Three times a year, then, all your males shall appear before the LORD, your God, in the place which he will choose: at the feast of Unleavened Bread, at the feast of Weeks, and at the feast of Booths” (Deut 16:16). The law was binding only on adult males who lived within about 23 km of Jerusalem. The travel of the Holy Family from Nazareth to Jerusalem was aross 150 km approximately. However, Joseph and Mary endured the hardship involved in attending Temple services every year for the Passover observance at Jerusalem.
The parents of Jesus went to Jerusalem
Rabbi Hillel (110 BC–10 AD) recommended that women also attend the Passover in Jerusalem. Though women were not obliged, devoted women went to Jerusalem for that feast. Samuel’s mother, Hannah, is an example. “Year after year, she went up to the house of the LORD” (1 Sam 1:7). Mary, being a devout Jew, went with Joseph every year and they brought Jesus along for this week-long celebration. They took offerings with them according to the direction of God – “They shall not appear before the LORD empty-handed, but each with his own gift, in proportion to the blessing which the LORD, your God, has given to you” (Deut 16:16-17).
Joseph and Mary’s participation in the Passover every year at Jerusalem shows how the Holy Family strictly adhered to the Law and fostered their devotion to God. It was apparent that they wanted Jesus to be familiar with the Temple and its practices from an early age. We also need to do the same with our children.
….went to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover as was customary.
The customary practice was that the Feast of Passover had to take place in Jerusalem because the observant had to sacrifice a lamb at the Temple. The priests collected the blood of the animal and poured it on the altar and the pilgrims took the remaining portion for the Passover meal to their homes or camps in Jerusalem. Hence, the Holy Family celebrated the feast at Jerusalem travelling a long distance.
(42) And when Jesus was twelve years old, he went up with them according to the custom for this feast.
When Jesus was twelve years old…..
According to the Biblical numerology, the numeral 12 represents perfection or authority. The Jews have the practice of bar mitzvah which means “son of the commandments”. “Bar or Bat Mitzvah is a coming-of-age ceremony for Jewish boys and girls when they reach the age of 12 or 13. This ceremony marks the time when a boy or girl becomes a Jewish adult. This means that they are now responsible for their own actions and can decide for themselves how they would like to practise Judaism.” (https://jewishmuseum. org.uk/schools/asset/life-cycle-bar-bat-mitzvah/). They are then bound to the laws of Moses and the practice of the Jewish rituals.
“Ancient rabbis, writing in the compendium of Jewish law known as the Talmud, did declare that boys are obligated to fulfil the “mitzvot” – the commandments of Jewish law – beginning at the age of 13.” (https://theconversation.com/what-is-a-barmitzvah-129745). Though not recorded in the Bible, some Jewish scholars surmise God gave this as a requirement to Moses when he was on Mount Sinai.
He went up with them according to the custom for this feast
Jesus might have travelled with his parents every year to Jerusalem for the feast. However, his trip at 12 was of special relevance because he became officially an adult and, as such, was responsible for his religious practices, including fasting on the day of atonement. At that age, Jesus might have put on the two phylacteries, which was also a Jewish custom to remind him of the obligation to practise the Law. Phylacteries are small square leather boxes containing Hebrew texts inscribed on vellum and that are worn on the left arm and on the forehead during morning weekday prayers by Orthodox Jewish men from the age of 12 or 13.
The pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the feast was in caravan, as expressed in Psalm 42:4 – “When I remember these things, I pour out my soul in me: for I had gone with the multitude, I went with them to the house of God, with the voice of joy and praise, with a multitude that kept holyday.” The villagers travelled together in groups for company and protection, rejoicing and praising God during their pilgrimage to the Temple. Children of the same age group would walk together, enjoying their companionship.
(43) After the festival was over, they returned, but the boy Jesus remained in Jerusalem and his parents did not know it.
The Passover celebration lasted seven days (Ex 12:15; Lev 23:56). Joseph and Mary spent at least one week in Jerusalem before returning.
How did the parents of Jesus happen to overlook the absence of the boy Jesus on their return trip? Was it sheer negligence on the part of Joseph and Mary, or perhaps of Jesus? The evangelist does not offer any clarity on this. Apparently, once the Holy Family reached the Temple, Jesus moved about independently. Since Jesus had officially reached adulthood, Joseph and Mary gave him freedom to move around by himself or with his friends. He was interested in spending time with the religious scholars who were teaching the pilgrims on the Temple premises. “Many people shall come and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the LORD’s mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths.’ For from Zion shall go forth instruction and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem” (Isa 2:3).
On the last day of the feast also, the Holy Family visited the crowded Temple before their departure. Even then, Jesus went to the teachers of the Law as before. The return journey of Joseph and Mary was also with the same pilgrims from Nazareth as a caravan. Joseph was travelling with a group of men and Mary with the women, even as the teenagers and youth enjoyed each other’s company in the caravan. So, the parents thought Jesus was with his friends from Nazareth or with one of them. Notably, mishaps of separation of children from their parents was normal in the crowded feast at Jerusalem.
(44) Thinking that he was in the company of the travellers they went a day’s journey. Then they looked for him among their relatives and friends.
The possibility of the mishap was: While Joseph and Mary were packing to return from Jerusalem, Jesus might have been with them. The parents let him go with his friends along with the caravan. When the caravan started from the Temple, the parents did not pay attention to Jesus presuming that he was in the company of the travellers, especially other teenagers from their native place. Walking in groups from Jerusalem, reaching Nazareth could take four to six days, depending upon their speed. Only when they came for an overnight stay after a one-day journey, the parents realized Jesus was missing. He was immersed in listening and questioning the religious teachers on their interpretations of the Law different from the truth. He was interested in how they interpret the prophecies about the coming of the Messiah. Only late in the afternoon, he might have realized his parents had already left without him. With no worry, he stayed at the same lodge where Joseph and Mary remained during the feast days and continued worshipping and conversing with the teachers in the Temple.
Joseph and Mary were worried about the absence of Jesus in the caravan that comprised the villagers from Nazareth and neighbouring villages. The parents searched for Jesus among the relatives and friends who were travelling in different groups or encamping in different tents or lodges.
(45) As they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem looking for him.
After a long and tedious journey, Joseph and Mary got really worried about their missing son. They had to rest at night along with others in the group, The night being unsafe for them to travel at night without company. Early morning, they set out to Jerusalem looking among the crowds on the way and pilgrims returning from the Holy City.
(46) And after three days they found him in the Temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.
After three days they found him in the Temple
The journey of Joseph and Mary to Jerusalem in search of Jesus might have taken longer because they were anxiously searching for him among the groups. Only on the third day after leaving Jerusalem, they reached the Temple and found Jesus there. Later in Mary’s life, she lost Jesus for three days by his death on the cross and she regained him on the third day after his resurrection. Both these rescues after missing were a relief for Mary.
Sitting among the teachers
The Temple was a place of worship and teaching of the Law. Jesus used to teach in the synagogues and Temple premises during his public ministry. Jewish scholars used to sit at Temple galleries and taught the pilgrims and clarified their doubts about the Law, the religious practices, and the advent of the Messiah. Jesus was sitting among the listeners, though no one there knew he was the very Messiah they were talking about.
Listening to them and asking them questions
Jesus was an active listener as to the teachings of the scholars. He did not need to learn from them because he was the “wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24). While listening to the teachers, Jesus politely raised questions so the teachers could correct their wrong understanding and interpretations of the scripture and religious practices. The question-and-answer session was also a method of rabbinical teaching during those days.
(47) And all the people were amazed at his understanding and his answers.
Though Jesus was only 12, he was knowledgeable about the questions raised. He could answer tough inquiries that the scholars could not. Jesus had the knowledge of the scriptures, and his interpretation was meaningful and different from the popular understanding and teachings of the scholars. So, no one could refute what he said. That made the teachers and listeners amazed at his words of wisdom.
When Jesus taught in the synagogue of his hometown at the start of his public ministry, the people were astonished at his wisdom and they asked, “Where did this man get such wisdom and mighty deeds?” (Mt 13:54). They had witnessed him growing up as a normal child with no formal education.
Jesus was also authoritative in his teaching. “He taught them as one having authority and not as the Scribes” (Mk 1:22). While the Scribes quoted from the prophets or other scripture passages for the authority of their discourse, Jesus’ teaching started with the phrase, “Truly, truly I say to you.” He manifested his wisdom and correct understanding of the scripture even at an early age in the Temple.
According to Psalm 119, keeping the commandments of God makes one wiser than his teachers and elders. “Your commandment makes me wiser than my foes, as it is forever with me. I have more insight than all my teachers, because I ponder your testimonies. I have more understanding than my elders, because I keep your precepts” (Ps 119:98-100).
(48) His parents were very surprised when they saw him, and his mother said to him, “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been very worried while searching for you.”
His parents were very surprised when they saw him
After a long and anxious search for their missing child, Joseph and Mary were relieved to have found Jesus. And relief apart, they were amazed at where he was found and what he was doing. He was not playing with other children of his age. Instead, their 12-year-old son was still in the Temple courtyard listening to the scholars and discussing with them like an adult, with such understanding as to surprise his listeners. His debate with the scholars was on par with their wisdom. The parents might have felt proud of their son. However, they were annoyed that Jesus did not let them know he would possibly remain in the Temple. So, the parents had mixed feelings. Though Jesus was a lost child for three days for the parents, they found him doing his call as the Messiah for the first time.
His mother said to him, “Son, why have you done this to us?
Though Joseph was the foster father of Jesus, Joseph did not address Jesus. He let Mary, the mother, handle it. Mary, knowing the divinity of her son and appreciating his performance in the Temple, obviously must have spoken to him with respect and affection. However, she did not fail to express before him Joseph’s and her own worry in no uncertain terms at having not seen him around for almost three days.
Your father and I have been very worried while searching for you
Joseph and Mary knew Jesus was an exceptional child, God’s chosen one, entrusted to their care. So, it was but natural that they both were worried about what might have happened to him and how they would find him. Had something bad happened to him, they would be answerable to God because, besides being their own son, he was the Son of God. Mary’s expression of her feelings to Jesus was implicit of her hope that a similar situation should not recur in the future.
(49) Then he said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
Why were you looking for me?
The implied meaning is why they were so worried about Jesus? Though he was under the care of human parents, didn’t he enjoy the protection of God Himself? Another shade of meaning is why you have been searching for me anywhere else other than in the Temple? As the Son of God, oughtn’t I to be busy in His house, surely?
This expressed his independence as a Jewish adult. While loyal to his earthly parents, he could make independent decisions in religious matters. This was not just an answer to Mary’s question, but a revelation of himself as one to be fully occupied with the works of the Father. However, only at 30 did Jesus leave his home and mother to do full-time ministry.
Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?
My Father: This is the first time the evangelist presents Jesus talking. During that initial dialogue, Jesus revealed God as his Father. The major accusation of the Jewish leaders against Jesus was blasphemy. He presented himself as the Son of God, sharing the essence of God and presenting God as his Father. Many, including the Angel Gabriel, while talking to Mary (Lk 1:35), the disciples, John the Baptist Jn 1:34), Nathanael (Jn 1:49), Martha (Jn 11:27), the centurion and others who crucified Jesus (Mt 27:54; Mk 15:39), and demons (Mt 8:29; Mk 5:7; Lk 8:28) called Jesus, “Son of God”.
My Father’s house: The Temple is the house of God and Jesus, being the Son of God, considered the Temple as the house of his Father. While cleansing the Temple, he said to those who sold doves, “Take these out of here, and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace” (Jn 2:16).
My Father’s work: Jesus’ assertion to Mary, “I must be in my Father’s house” literally means, “I must be in the things of my Father.” Another translation is “I must be about my Father’s work.” When the Jewish community acknowledged Jesus as an adult at age 12, he started engaging in the work of his Father. Though he started his public ministry after 18 more years, he engaged in the work of His Father for a few days in his Father’s house by participating in theological discussions with religious scholars. As a Jewish adult and the Son of God, his responsibilities to the Father took precedence over his earthly parents.
Jesus expressed his preference to do the work of his Father on other occasions. During his encounter with the Samaritan woman, Jesus told his disciples, who offered him food, “My food is to do the will of the one who sent me and to finish his work” (Jn 4:34). To prove his divinity, Jesus told the Jews, “But I have testimony greater than John’s. The works that the Father gave me to accomplish, these works that I perform testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me” (Jn 5:36).
I must: The Father had assigned Jesus the obligation to do His will. When the crowd wanted to make Jesus their king after the multiplication of loves, he told them, “I came down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me” (Jn 6:38). Jesus did that in the Temple. So, he was right in staying at the Temple after the Passover, to continue his involvement in the scriptural discussions.
(50) But they did not understand what he was saying to them.
Since the nature and mission of Jesus differed from others, his life involved mysteries. The listeners and even the disciples could not understand the parables (Mk 4:10-12) and prediction of his passion because the meaning of his teachings was hidden from them (Lk 9:45; 18:34). His parables were earthly stories with heavenly meanings, which were difficult to comprehend when he preached. His passion and crucifixion were the sacrifice he voluntarily chose for the salvation of humanity. The Holy Spirit had to reveal later the meaning of Jesus’ teachings to the disciples. Jesus told the disciples, “The Advocate, the holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name—he will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you” (Jn 14:26).
So, Jesus’ staying in the Temple and his response to Mary were not disobedience or disrespect but the right actions from God’s point of view. Joseph and Mary did not understand what Jesus spoke about the works of his Father in the Temple.
(51) Jesus went down with them, returning to Nazareth, and he continued to be under their authority. As for his mother, she kept all these things in her heart.
Jesus went down with them, returning to Nazareth
Though travelling from Jerusalem to Nazareth was from south to north, the evangelist records they went down because Jerusalem was situated 2,474 feet and Nazareth 1,138 feet above sea level. If they were passing through Jericho, the usual route to avoid Samaria, they were descending deeper because Jericho is 846.5 feet below sea level. The distance between Jerusalem and Jericho is about 28 km, and within that distance, the travellers would descend more than 3/4 of a km in elevation. So, the expression of one travelling to Jerusalem from anywhere is “going up” and returning from there is “going down”.
He continued to be under their authority
Jesus, who lived under the authority of his parents, continued to be courteous and helpful to them, keeping the commandment of God to respect our parents. Though God, Jesus humbled and subjected himself to the directives of human parents, setting an example for children. Saint Paul wrote, “Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:5-8). Jesus respected the authority of his heavenly Father and his earthly parents and obeyed them.
As the only child in the family, Jesus might have engaged in helping Joseph in his building career and Mary in helping with her domestic duties. He might have engaged in theological discussions with the teachers in the Temple, while going to Jerusalem for the feasts, during the rest 18 years before he started his public ministry.
The evangelists who came to know Jesus only from the time of his public ministry were not aware of his activities during his private life. They did not rely on the stories that might have spread about Jesus during his life in Nazareth with his parents because of the lack of evidence or because of their irrelevance to the reader.
As for his mother, she kept all these things in her heart
Luke, who might have interviewed Mary, realized how she could clearly recollect everything that had happened related to the incarnation and childhood of Jesus. It is natural that we remember stirring events of our lives, even from childhood.
The evangelists do not mention Joseph hereafter because he might have died during the 18 more years of Jesus’ private life in the family. He might have been supporting Mary after the death of his foster father.
Along with the previous events, starting with the annunciation by the Angel Gabriel, Mary had many poignant memories kept in her heart. The missing Jesus and the almost three-day-long search for him, the finding him in the Temple doing the work of his Father, and later his subjection to the authority of the parents, and supporting them until he started his public ministry were also memorable experiences Mary kept in her mind.
(52) And Jesus increased in wisdom and in age and in grace with God and men.
God created his son Adam in His image and likeness as an adult. God created Eve also as a grown-up woman from the rib of Adam. However, God let His Son, Jesus, be born and to grow as any other person in a family with parents. The evangelist documents the growth of Jesus similar to that of Samuel. “Young Samuel was growing in stature and in worth in the estimation of the LORD and the people” (1 Sam 2:26). Jesus’ family life from childhood was obviously the perfect model for children and youth, his exemplary life pleasing both his villagers, and God.
Though Jesus was God and the seat of wisdom, he had the humble growth in the physical, mental, and wisdom levels like other ordinary children. This shows how he became totally one among us in every way except sin. His behaviour as a child and youth pleased everyone, including God. He did not perform miracles until the Holy Spirit descended on him at his baptism in the River Jordan from John. His first miracle to manifest the glory of God was at the wedding banquet at Cana in Galilee (Jn 2:1-11). Since nothing extraordinary happened during the 18 years after his parents found him in the Temple, the evangelists summarized, Jesus grew in wisdom appropriate to his age and he led a life pleasing to everybody.
1. Though Nazareth was around 150 km away from Jerusalem, the Holy Family used to go to the Temple every year for the feast of the Passover with the child Jesus. That also should motivate the parents to take their children at least every Sunday to Church for Mass and for their religious formation.
2. The boy Jesus loved to be in the Temple and listen to the teachers there. He took active part in their religious discussions. We must also get our children to be active in catechism and age-appropriate parish activities as part of their faith formation.
3. Though Joseph and Mary had received a divine call and blessings from God, they also underwent struggles in life like anybody else. Even when we work for Jesus and his Church, we might, like the Holy Family, encounter challenges. Let us entrust our families to God’s protection and to that of the Holy Family that handled problems in life like us.
4. The Jews had the practice of giving their children age-appropriate religious formation whereby, on reaching the age of 12, they begin to practise their faith like adults. An early faith formation is essential for the continuity of the children’s faith and religious practices in adulthood.
5. The boy Jesus gave due importance to do the work of the Father, thus showing us how to prioritize the doing of God’s will above everything else. Let us realize our calling in the Church and live up to that calling by actively serving Jesus in the people.
6. God’s work has precedence for a Christian. Jesus told those who wished to follow him, “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:26). It means the disciple’s family must take only a second place after Jesus. If a conflict arises in the family on following Jesus, the disciple should prefer faith and work with the Church.
7. Irrespective of his divinity, Jesus subjected himself to the authority of his parents even after reaching Jewish adulthood at age 12. He also supported his family, especially after the death of Joseph. Let us practise humility and obedience to authorities.
8. The Holy Family was a domestic Church for 30 years, with Jesus as their focus. Let us ensure that our families are also Jesus-centred by means of the virtues of prayer, love, and mutual support.