The boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem without his parents knowing it. Luke 2:42f
I wonder if this well-known episode could appropriately be designated ‘Jesus’ first surprise’? For, the gasp of surprise on the part of all the players in this drama is still discernable after two-thousand years, even given the emotional restraint characteristic of the gospels’ literary style. In any case, this story certainly comes across as an entirely unique, and not wholly intelligible event. At twelve years old, St. Luke is careful to note, Jesus obeys the inward voice, the irresistible inward call of his Father, and behaves in a fashion contrary to the expectations of his parents, while himself expecting that his parents are sufficiently clued in not to worry about him. I doubt that St. Luke means this to be seen as an example of childish naughtiness on Jesus’ part. Rather, the suggestion is that this is Jesus’ first act as God’s adult Son, where his inner sense of who he is and what he must do to be true to his identity takes priority over all other claims. And if he surprises his parents, Jesus is no less surprised by the fact that they simply don’t get it. ‘Did you not know,’ he says to them, ‘that I must be in my Father’s house?’ Did you not know? How could this necessity at the core of my being possibly surprise you – of all people? But, not even his exceptionally graced parents were prepared for this action of Jesus, for Luke admits, ‘…they did not understand what he meant.’
Surprise over Jesus’ absence, anxious search for Jesus, then finally the discovery of him in the temple, where he utters further surprising words which are virtually incomprehensible. How many times have I been there? And how many times have I tangled with Jesus’ sovereign, unapologetic inscrutability: ‘Did you not know,’ he says to me, ‘that I must be in my Father’s house?’
So, today’s Gospel has much to say to me. If Jesus seems ‘absent’, then perhaps it is because I am actually expecting him to be following me, like a little dependent child. Whereas, the reality is the other way around. I am meant to be the dependent child following him. He is the Lord, therefore the leader. At the same time, if I lose sight of him for a while, I need not feel at a loss as to where to find him, for he tells us here where he will be. He will always be ‘found’ in his Father’s house – indeed, it is the inner necessity of his being that he should be there, in the Godhead, the Trinity, in the Church, in her liturgy. Such a finding of Jesus may, at times, be as perplexing and unsatisfying to me as Mary and Joseph’s finding is in today’s Gospel. But never mind. It is still a finding. I need him, but I don’t always need to understand him. Today’s Gospel assures me that Jesus will never really be ‘lost’ to me, therefore. Nor will I be lost to him if I continue simply to return to the Father’s house. He will always be there.