By Ted Penton, SJ
If your child went missing, where would you go looking for him or her? Probably not to a church, which is rarely the first place that runaway kids head. And that’s not where Mary and Joseph went to look for 12-year-old Jesus either, despite the miraculous circumstances surrounding his birth. Three days they spent looking for him — three days! That’s a lot of time to search all over Jerusalem, at friends’ and relatives’ houses, wherever the kids were hanging out — we don’t know where all they looked. But we do know that it took three days before they finally went to the Temple, and that’s a long time when you’re looking for a missing child.
How many times in each of our own lives has it seemed like Jesus was missing, was no longer with us, or maybe even never was? Or how many times have we been marching along, secure in the belief that Jesus was still with us, when in fact we’d gone off on our own way, having left him behind? Where do we go looking for him? Where do we go looking for God, or even just for a connection with something greater than ourselves, when it feels like that’s missing?
How many times in each of our own lives has it seemed like Jesus was missing, was no longer with us, or maybe even never was?
For an ever-growing number of people in our society, the last place they go looking for God is to a church or temple. Many people, especially younger people, want to live a spiritual life, but want to do so without a connection to any organized religion. Whether that’s because of scandals in the Church, disagreements with Church teachings or because the Church just seems irrelevant and disconnected from everyday life, the Church is a place that fewer people turn to.
When Mary and Joseph finally found Jesus, sitting in the Temple among the teachers, “they were astonished.” One of the hallmarks of authentic encounter with Jesus is that it often surprises us in some way. Throughout his public ministry, he repeatedly surprised those around him by his words, his behaviour and the people he associated with. As then, so it is today — Jesus can show up in our own lives in the places we least expect him. He is a living God, not one who fits into the boxes we inevitably create for him. He continually challenges and expands our understanding of who God is.
The surprise of finding Jesus, though, is a particular kind of surprise. Jesus normally doesn’t show up in totally random places, but in places which, in retrospect, should have been obvious. Though Mary and Joseph are initially astonished at finding Jesus in the Temple, he wonders why, asking why they even had to search: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” The feeling of surprise on encountering Jesus is often shortly followed by a feeling of, “of course,” and I imagine that’s how Mary and Joseph felt, even if they didn’t fully understand.
Jesus can show up in our own lives in the places we least expect him. He is a living God, not one who fits into the boxes we inevitably create for him.
After all, through his life and teaching, Jesus showed us where to find him: in Scripture, in the Eucharist, in prayer, in service to others, especially those who are poor and excluded. At the time many were astonished to find God at work outside of the Temple, consorting with women, with prostitutes, with tax collectors, with lepers, with Samaritans. In our day, many might be equally astonished to find that the living God is still at work inside the Church, even a Church subject to so many human failings.