Any parent can testify that nothing in the world is more terrifying than the possibility of “losing” your child, and all the potential horrors associated with that thought.
The summer that my youngest daughter Michelle turned twelve, I agreed to let her and her best friend meander on their own through Westminster Abbey in London. After all, I told myself, they were old enough to know how to act in that kind of setting, and I would not be far if they needed me.
When they were fifteen minutes late meeting me at the exit door where we agreed to meet, I was worried, and a bit annoyed. When they were thirty minutes late, I began asking the guards at that exit if they had seen her, describing the two girls and what they were wearing. When an hour had gone by, my fear had turned to anxious panic.
It’s indescribable, really, that mix of emotions that a parent experiences in that kind of situation. But it’s not difficult for any parent to imagine.
Mary and Joseph would have been traveling in a large crowd, where children walk with friends and parents mingle as they travel, unconcerned about their child’s safety because of the number of other adults helping to keep an eye on all the kids.
It’s not difficult to conceive how Mary and Joseph could travel an entire day without becoming concerned about Jesus’ whereabouts.
At the end of the day, however, when Mary and Joseph touched base with each other and realized that neither of them had seen Jesus all day, I can also imagine the fear and anxiety with which they must have searched their caravan.
Have you seen Jesus? Who was the last person to see him? Where were we when you saw him? How long ago was that?
Besides dread and anxiety, there is immediate massive guilt. How could I lose my own child? What kind of parent would do that?
Every minute that goes by when your child is missing feels like an hour.
Mary and Joseph must have felt terrible anguish when they finally came to the conclusion that Jesus was not with their group—and that the only thing they could do was to trace back their steps to Jerusalem.
The gospel of Luke only tells us that “the child Jesus remained behind unknown to his parents,” and that “thinking he was in the party, [Mary and Joseph] continued their journey for a day, looking for him among their relatives and acquaintances” (Luke 2:43-44).
It took Mary and Joseph three whole days to finally find Jesus.
Surely they started walking back to Jerusalem without delay at the end of their caravan search that first day, walking through the night without wasting time or even resting.
But even when they arrived back in the city, they must have spent hours that next morning asking anyone and everyone in Jerusalem whether they had seen their son.
What a frantic process! Tracing back your steps to all the places they had been during the Passover feast, pleading with everyone to think and recall: Have you seen a boy about this height, with dark hair, light eyes, broad shoulders. He was wearing… please, try to remember!
Finally, someone must have told them that they had seen a boy with those features at the Temple, and in spite of their exhaustion, Mary and Joseph raced to the sanctuary.
“[T]hey came upon him in the temple sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. All who heard him were amazed at his intelligence and his answers” (Luke 2:46-47).
When I finally found my daughter Michelle, it was obvious that she and her friend had both been crying, evidently as frightened as I had been by our separation. In between sobs, I learned that the girls thought we had agreed to meet back at the entrance of the Abbey—while I thought we had agreed to meet at the exit door. It’s an understandable miscommunication.
I seized Michelle in my arms and embraced her tighter than I ever had. Neither of us wanted to let go. I felt thankful and joyous. I was angry. I was tremendously relieved. I felt confused.
In addition to the myriad of emotions that Mary must have felt standing there watching Jesus, finally seeing her son with her own eyes, she, too, must have been confused.
It is obvious by the way that Luke describes the event in the gospel that Jesus did not “get” it.
He didn’t run up and hug on his parents. He didn’t seem or act overjoyed at being found. In fact, he didn’t even act concerned, or aware that there had been a problem! Jesus did not act like a child who had been lost at all.
When his parents saw Jesus, Luke tells us, they were “astonished,” a word that also means amazed, dumbfounded, incredulous, overwhelmed, surprised, speechless, shocked.