I think one of the most frightening experiences a parent can have is to lose a child. I remember being at a crowded beach while on vacation once when the relaxed atmosphere was suddenly interrupted by a woman screaming, “I can’t find my son!” She was frantic. Fortunately, after a few tense moments, she found her little boy playing in the sand a ways down the beach, oblivious to his mother’s fear. She scooped him up in her arms and held him close to her, carrying him away.
Today we celebrate the feast of the Holy Family, and the Gospel reading that we hear recalls the incident when Mary and Joseph lost Jesus, not just for a few minutes, but for several days. Being devout Jews, they had traveled from Nazareth up to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover feast and were returning home in a caravan. They had probably traveled a full day’s journey when they realized that Jesus was not with either of them. The custom was that men and women would travel separately in the caravan; boys would typically travel with the women until around the age of 12 or 13, when they would start traveling with the men. Jesus was right around that age when he could have traveled with either group. Mary and Joseph probably assumed that Jesus was with the other one. At the end of the day, families would reunite to spend the night together. It would have been at that point that Mary and Joseph would have made their unpleasant discovery – Jesus wasn’t with either one of them.
So, they traveled back to Jerusalem – another day’s journey back – to look for Jesus. And finally, on the third day, they found him in the Temple, talking with and listening to the Jewish rabbis. Mary’s question to Jesus – “Son, why have you done this to us?” – reveals the anxiety she must have felt during those three days of separation. No doubt this was the first time that Mary and Jesus had ever been separated for so long. And it was a foreshadowing of the three days that they would again be separated when Jesus laid in the tomb after his death on the Cross.
There are other parallels between this story of the Finding of the Child Jesus in the Temple with Jesus’ death and resurrection. Twenty-plus years later, Jesus’ crucifixion also took place in Jerusalem at Passover. And following his death on the Cross, while his body lay in the tomb, two of his disciples journeyed away from Jerusalem on the way to Emmaus, similar to Mary and Joseph’s journey away from Jerusalem.
Mary’s question to Jesus after finding him in the temple is such a human response to his disappearance. And the Gospel goes on to say that Mary did not understand his reply to her, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” It reveals that Mary, although having received insights into her Son’s identity that others did not have, did not yet fully comprehend everything about her Son and his mission. She was a human being like us, and her knowledge and understanding of these heavenly mysteries that she was literally living through was as such limited.
Jesus’ response to Mary’s question also reveals that he had a mission to pursue. Although he was the obedient son of Mary and Joseph, there was a greater authority to whom he submitted – his heavenly Father. No doubt this finding of Jesus in the temple was a rupture with the first twelve years of Jesus’ life. Prior to it, he had been living quietly with Mary and Joseph in Nazareth, obedient to them. And even after his return with them to Nazareth – his public ministry had not yet begun – he remained obedient to them. But here in the Temple in Jerusalem, Jesus for the first time explicitly revealed that he had another, higher authority than they with a mission to fulfill. Here we have it: just days after celebrating Jesus’ birth, and still within the octave of Christmas, we have this reminder that Jesus was born as a little baby for a very distinct purpose: to suffer and die on the Cross for our salvation. In the midst of his ordinary life, the first thirty “hidden” years of his life, we are given a hint of Jesus’ extraordinary mission.
Each one of us too is in the middle of living out the relative ordinariness of our lives. But don’t let this regular, day-to-day ordinariness fool you: each one of us also has an incredible mission, so much greater than our day-to-day lives would lead us to believe. Our mission is not that of Jesus: we are not called to earn our or anyone else’s salvation: there is only one Savior and that is Jesus, and it’s only through him that we have salvation. However, we all have the mission of participating in Jesus’ saving work: of putting our faith in Jesus, of striving to follow him, listening to him and obeying him, and of bringing others to Jesus so that they too might become aware that they have a Savior. So our mission is literally one of life or death – eternal life or death – accepting or rejecting the salvation Jesus won for us on the Cross.
And one of the primary contexts of living out our mission is in ordinary, everyday family life. Around Christmas, we have plenty of time with our families. We experience the good and yes sometimes even the bad of family life in a particular way at this time of year. We see family members we love, and perhaps also family members who try our patience. Some family members who it is easy to love, and others who it’s not so easy to love.
Families are called the domestic Church. This is where the faith usually begins, takes root, and grows. And as I said, it is one of the primary contexts of living out our mission, i.e. our Catholic faith. Families can be the source of our greatest joys, but also our greatest sorrows. The people we are closest to are usually our families. But they can also be the source of the greatest pain.
Our first two readings talk about family life. They give us instructions in how to have better family lives. Incidentally, every family member has a role to play in this. It’s not all on just the mom, or the dad, or the children – everyone has to do his or her part for families to be happier, stronger, and at peace. I encourage everyone to go back and reread our readings from Sirach and St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians. But let me just repeat here briefly a few of St. Paul’s words about how to have stronger families: “Put on, as God’s chosen ones…heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another…if the Lord has forgiven you, so also you must do. And over all these put on love.”
Like Jesus, we have a mission. This is our mission: to love one another. It starts in our own families. We cannot neglect them. We won’t be perfect at it; that’s where forgiveness comes in. But let us look to the Holy Family as our model, and call upon their intercession, so that we might love as God calls us to do.