Mary says upon finally finding Jesus after having seemingly lost track of him on the return visit to Nazareth from Jerusalem, "Child, why have you treated us like this? Look your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety" (Luke 2:48). Anyone who has had a child and even momentarily lost sight of them, not to mention their disappearing for 12-24 hours, can identify with what Mary said to her son. Now we can deal with the story at the psychological level but if we do we will no doubt conclude that these were irresponsible parents who lost track of their son. They would no doubt get reported to Social Services.
I think that we have clues within Luke's story that suggest we put aside some of our contemporary psychological understandings. We need to ask first about how this simple story fits into Luke's understanding of Jesus and what we can take from this story for our lives today.
A couple of points are worth noting about Luke's story of Jesus infancy and childhood. Luke begins the infancy narrative in the Jerusalem temple (Luke 1:5-25). As we come to the end of the narrative (Luke 2:41-52) we are again in the Jerusalem temple. In fact at the end of Luke's Gospel (Luke 24:52-53) after Jesus departs they return to "Jerusalem with great joy and are continually in the temple blessing God." Luke organizes his presentation with a large piece of it unique to Luke around this journey to Jerusalem (see especially Luke 9:51-19:27). For Luke Jerusalem is important in the entire history of God's salvation.
Also Luke's story of Jesus in the temple when he was 12 years old suggests two things. First, many Greek and Jewish biographies of antiquity have a story that makes the point of the intelligence of the hero. Luke wants to tell us that this little 12 year old Jesus is unlike any other kid at any time. So we should not be surprised to find this type of story to illustrate Jesus exceptional qualities. Second, and maybe even more importantly 12 year old Jewish boys had their coming into adulthood celebrated at that age. Now days of course little girls would have their Bat Mitzvahs as well. This is the time the children not only become adults it is the time when they get up and read the scripture before all of the gathered adult community. Bar and Bat Mitzvahs have become legendary. It doesn't say it in Luke's story but you can begin to imagine that there may have been a party in the finest hotel in downtown Jerusalem! Remember it says relatives and friends were there.
Luke's story helps us see the tensions every parent feels at the moment they begin to sense the child becoming an adult. Of course that is not the only time parents experience tension!! Our story has an additional tension/ambiguity. It appears Joseph is the father when Mary questions her son ("your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety"). Jesus response, "Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" gives the distinct sense that he had begun to be aware of his vocation. One can only imagine the tensions back in Nazareth as Jesus advanced through those teenage years. It is clear from our text and from every gospel account regarding Mary that she was pondering and treasuring all these things (Luke 1:51).
Our role this Christmas season is to search for our vocation and to better understand what our Father wants us to become.