CHAPTER XIX. JESUS IS LOST AND FOUND
JESUS had just completed His twelfth year, and the Feast of the Passover was near at hand.
Accompanied by their friends and relatives, Joseph and Mary set out for Jerusalem, taking their Son with them for the first time—and this in order to comply with the rules which ordained that, when he attained the age of twelve the young Israelite became a son of the Law. He could share in the ceremonies of worship, and had to go up to Jerusalem three times a year.
These voyages across Judea were frequent. The Passover and other obligatory festivals could only be celebrated in the Holy City, so that every Hebrew had to journey there. Those who dwelt in the confines of the land of Israel were no more exempt than those who lived in the suburbs of Jerusalem. Performed on foot or on slow-moving beasts of burden, a voyage of this sort was extremely long. But what mattered it in these beautiful climates where life was spent more or less under the vaults of heaven? Did not the charming feasts of nature, ever rich and fruitful, form part of the celebrations to which God invited His people?
The Israelites left their homes in the springtime; when the sun made the days magnificent without rendering them scorching; when the nights were sown with stars, and when the balmy meadows clothed themselves in beauty to meet their Creator. Setting out amid such loveliness, the pilgrims started from all points of Judea, and marched in troops to Jerusalem. The caravans often met when they halted near the fountains; and the people, exchanging the kiss of peace, would set up their tents for the night. The 'young men, going to the well, raised the stone that covered it, and filled the pitchers of the maidens, whose grave and mild deportment eminently befitted the traditions of their race. Beautiful as Rebecca and modest as Ruth, they returned to their mothers without having, apparently, listened to the flattering speech of the young strangers. Nevertheless, both parties met again at the same fountain, and when these meetings were renewed several times it almost invariably happened that the parents were induced to talk of and arrange a marriage.
Under the tents the conversation was mote serious. The topics there were the oppression of the people, the libertinism of the governor's court; the harassing taxes and sufferings under which the God of Israel allowed His chosen to suffer. The old men spoke of the approaching harvest, expressing their fears that it would be bad, or talked of a probable war, and other subjects of uneasiness. Old age is prone to see calamities that never occur.
Presently the voices of the young girls would sound forth in the evening hymn. From a distance the young men responded to it. Little by little the fears, the predictions of disaster, the perils and fatigues of the day, as well as the hopes and aspirations of the young men, and the timid emotions of the maidens, were softened and lulled in the last prayer, to which repose succeeded. On the following morning both parties separated, and in the evening exchanged the same kindness and courtesy with other strangers.
Thus it was that the Hebrew people formed but one vast family, united under a beautiful sky, and singing the praises of God even in the deserts. At last they would arrive at the Temple, and however great might be its splendor, with whatever beauty it might shine, they had seen far greater pomps and a more beautiful spectacle among the mountains. They had seen the glorious sun plunging into the sea, its rays sparkling on an ocean of flame. They had seen the moon cast a shimmering veil of silver over the solitudes of Gerara; or again they had watched, awestruck, the lightning flashing about the top of Mount Hermon.
Oh, how small, how weak, how trivial is man, when he strives to compare his poor splendors with those of the Most High! The only value they possess is the intention with which they are greeted.
On approaching the Temple, the travelers found its porch, its porticoes, its courts, filled with an immense multitude, who had come to Jerusalem from all parts of Judea. There an entire nation, men and women, old and young, rich and poor, the happy and the miserable, were united with one sole thought —that of adoration.
The year in which Jesus accompanied Mary and Joseph to Jerusalem, saw a greater crowd of people than had ever before attended one of the Hebrew feasts. The cause of this was the rumor that had spread and died away and spread again, concerning the birth of the Messias. Many Israelites hoped to gain some news of Him during these solemnities.
Many, in fact, said, "The Christ is here, the Christ is there!" Some even added that shepherds had saluted Him at His birth: others that kings had come from the East to adore Him. But as they expected a glorious and triumphant Christ, whose breath alone would serve to reduce their oppressors, the Romans, to the dust, they would never have been able to recognize Him in His obscurity, hidden in the throng with Joseph and Mary, who had come, not to boast of the glory which God had bestowed upon them, but in silent humility to pay homage to the Most High.
After the seven days of the solemnity, when they had offered a sheaf of barley, the first produce of the new harvest; when they had eaten the unleavened bread, as a symbol of the purity of their hearts; when the lamb without blemish had bees immolated, and they had partaken of it standing, among their friends and neighbors, with their loins girt like travelers—then did Mary and Joseph and those of their town who had accompanied them, set out for Nazareth, going by the gate of Ephraim and the high road, which was filled with crowds of people returning to their homes.
They formed a numerous troop—so numerous that Joseph and Mary were separated by a caravan returning to Jaser, beyond the Jordan. These boorish people passed through and dispersed the band with a lack of civility very uncommon in those days of festival, in which the Hebrews lived like brothers. Mary was in front with Salome, Cleophas, and others of her neighbors. Jesus was not with them, and noting the fact, Mary was uneasy about Him until Cleophas assured her that He was with Joseph. She believed him, and continued her journey.
The stars were so bright and the air so fresh that the travelers were determined to cover as much ground as possible, so they did not stop at the usual hour. At last they halted near the springs of Galaad. What, however, was Mary's consternation when, on seeing Joseph, who now joined her, she found that Jesus was not with him. She called Him, she sought Him all through the assembled troop, but in vain.
"Has no one seen my Son?" she cried.
Nobody had seen Him. She waited until the day-dawn, and then she and Joseph examined every group, visited every tent.
"Has no one seen my Son? Can no one tell me where is Jesus ?"
No one had seen Him, no one could give them any tidings. A mortal terror seized upon the Mother, and Joseph shared it.
"What can have become of Him?" exclaimed the bystanders one to another in real anxiety, and Mary grew pale as she murmured:
"Has the hour arrived?"
The mission of the Saviour! Its perils were already in her mind. She trembled, and her soul was shaken to its depths with dread.
They went back to Jerusalem. What a journey that was, filled with anguish for father and mother! They inquired for Jesus along the road, knocked at every cottage, spoke to every one they met: Jesus, a young Child, the most lovely of all children . . . such was He whom they sought. Some had remarked Him on His arrival, and recognizing Him from the description given of Him by His parents, exclaimed:
"That beautiful boy? Oh, what a pity if any misfortune has befallen him!"
One or two spoke of a furious bull that had broken loose in the city the preceding evening, and had injured several before he had been killed—so prone is man, by a secret instinct of misfortune, to seize the worst side of every event and magnify its dangers.
They took a day, a night, and the half of another day to return to Jerusalem across the shelving roads which they had descended with such rapidity. What unhappiness preyed upon the minds of Joseph and Mary during these uneasy hours!
At last they arrived. But where were they to seek for the Child? They inquired for Him from the guards, from the gatekeeper, from all they encountered. None had seen Him. None could give any tidings of Him. They went to the house in which they had lodged during the festival. All remembered Jesus too well to have forgotten Him, but none had caught a single glimpse of Him.
Then Mary, so filled with sorrow that she could not speak, motioned to Joseph that they should turn toward the Temple. And there they went, afraid, and dreading the denials which they felt awaited them. With palpitating hearts they entered. The vast galleries were deserted. No sound was heard save that of their footsteps upon the pavement. They passed through the porch of the Gentiles, and advanced under the open porticoes of the Israelites. Everywhere the same silence reigned.
They were about to penetrate farther, in order to interrogate the priests, when, from the bottom of the immense and magnificent porch of the Hebrews, they heard a voice! O voice a thousand times blessed! A thousand times delightful to the ears of that Mother! It is the voice of her Son, of her Beloved! Trembling, Mary sank upon her knees.
Returning thanks to God, and regaining strength in prayer, Mary rose, after a while, and she and Joseph approached nearer the spot from which the tones of Jesus issued. Concealed by a pillar of porphyry inlaid with gold, which hid her from the sight of all, she contemplated her Son.
The divine Child, far more beautiful than are the angels of God when they are permitted to take human form in order to appear to man, clothed in a simple white tunic, His head crowned with the glory of His golden hair, His countenance calm, His appearance inspired, was standing in the midst of the Doctors of the Law. Those who listened were seated in attitudes of rapt attention. He questioned and spoke with such force and such authority that they were confounded with admiration.
The Virgin heard Him interrogate Malaleel, surnamed the Ram, on account of the elevation of his genius; Tobias, so called for his benevolence; Joseph of Arimathea, styled the good rich man; Nicodemus the Pharisee, and a great many others. They seemed lost in amazement, comprehending for the first time how weak were their ideals, how imperfect their virtue compared with the high ideals and sublime virtue which this Child required: "Be ye therefore perfect as also your heavenly Father is perfect." (St. Matthew v, 48.) They were silent before Him.
How filled with grace the Son of God, whose glance penetrated the secrets of highest heaven! Joseph and Mary listened with holy recollection.
The Blessed Virgin had indeed heard such words in the secret recesses of her own pure soul, but never had they been expounded in human speech.
And then, when He had finished, He turned and left the Doctors so quietly that they did not note His departure. They sat meditating upon the truths which He had laid before them, speaking as one in authority. The divine seal was upon Him and His countenance glowed with superhuman intelligence. Mary and Joseph left the pillar and advanced to meet Him, amazed, feeling their own nothingness in the presence of His majesty. With humble tenderness Mary spoke to Him:
"Son, why hast Thou done so to us ? Behold, Thy father and I have sought Thee sorrowing."(St. Luke ii, 48.)
Joseph, too, gazed on that lovely countenance with questioning eyes.
"How is it that you sought Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father's business ?" (Ibid., 49.)
Mary felt a curious trembling seize upon all her limbs. For the first time it was her God who spoke. The ties of earth had disappeared. He had spoken of His Father . . . His heavenly Father. Mary and Joseph were filled with wonder. The Virgin Mother looked at Joseph.
"They understood not the word that He spoke unto them. . . . And His Mother kept all these words in her heart." (Ibid., 50, 51.)