Among the community

I’m certain Joseph and Mary aren’t the only parents who have come to the horrible realization that they have left a child somewhere, when, in fact, they thought the child was along all the while. When I come upon the scripture, and right after Christmas, about Jesus staying behind in the Temple to talk with the rabbis and his parents moving on down the road just assuming that he was somewhere with them, I have to think of my friend Gillian. This same thing happened to Gillian, not once, but twice, and both times in the same trip.

Gillian is in the center flanked by her sister Hilary on the left and Kendra on the right. Gillian would have been about 4 here. [All rights protected]

Gillian is in the center flanked by her sister Hilary on the left and Kendra on the right. Gillian would have been about 4 here. [All rights protected]

Gillian is now married and teaches high school chemistry in Utah. But I can remember Gillian as a brand new baby in South Dakota and holding her in my lap at church while her parents sang in the choir or as they attended to her two older sisters who had other parts in worship or in weddings.

When she was about 12-years-old, her family was flying to Maryland so that the two older girls could take part in a national competition for high school students. Gillian was the same age as Jesus when his folks took him to Jerusalem and the Temple – and she was just going as part of the family as he did.

She and her family had arrived in Maryland and were staying in a dorm. Gillian had told one of the adult supervisors that she was going to the bathroom. When she returned, her family had headed on to the competition without her. It seems they didn’t miss her until they were entering the hall where the competition was to take place. Her father counted out the tickets to the person at the door and discovered, to his dismay, that he had one more ticket than he had people. He did a hasty U-turn, headed back to the dorm, and collected Gillian.

A few years ago, Gillian and I were talking and I asked her how it felt to be left behind. “I was a little scared,” she recollected. “But I felt like I knew where I was so it wasn’t so bad.”

The second time around was another story. The family was on the return trip to South Dakota and had to change planes in Minneapolis. This time, the mother took two of the girls into the restroom with her. Gillian told me, “She thought she went into the bathroom with Hilary and Kendra but she went in there with Hilary and me. So when she came out, she saw both Hilary and Kendra standing there and figured everyone was together.” The family headed off to the next gate.

The story, of course, is that Gillian then came out of the bathroom and, once again, discovered that she had been left behind.

“Did you have a plane ticket with you so you could ask someone what to do?” I asked?

“No. I didn’t have anything. But I saw somebody else from South Dakota that I knew was on the same flight so I went with them.”

“So, how did you feel when this happened a second time?” I asked.

“Well, I was a little bit angry,” she said, and noted her feelings were complicated by the fact that it wasn’t until she actually showed up at the gate that her parents even knew she was missing.

Gillian (on the left) makes Christmas cookies with her sisters Kendra and Hilary. Gillian would be 10 years old in this photo. [Terry C. Anderson photo; all rights protected]

Gillian (on the left) makes Christmas cookies with her sisters Kendra and Hilary. Gillian would be 10 years old in this photo. [Terry C. Anderson photo; all rights protected]

We can only gasp at the idea of a 12-year-old running around loose in the Minneapolis airport. The fact is, however, that not unlike Jesus’ parents, Gillian’s parents may not have noticed their daughter’s absence because there is an unspoken assurance among people who travel together from Pierre, SD; they will look out for one another and for one another’s children. That’s the way it happened to Jesus. Mary and Joseph could reasonably assume that Jesus was somewhere else in the caravan and that he was among friends.

Then they discovered, as Gillian’s parents did, their error and they headed back to Jerusalem to collect their child.

We don’t know if they knew where to look or if they hunted all over Jerusalem before they found him in the Temple. We also cannot tell from the story whether it was an oversight on the part of Mary and Joseph who, like Gillian’s parents, may have been temporarily distracted by their other children, or if Jesus deliberately stayed behind without giving thought to the panic it would cause his parents when they discovered he was missing. But, from Mary’s questioning of him we do know they were, indeed, somewhat frantic: “Why have you treated us like this?” she asked. “Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”

They did not understand when he told them that they should have just assumed – as they had apparently assumed that he would be with family or friends in the caravan – that, in Jerusalem, he would be in God’s house.

I have really come to appreciate the 12 days of Christmas. The 12 days start with Christmas day and then count toward and into January, ending on what is Epiphany, that day when it is believed that the Wise Men arrived at the manger. I appreciate those days because I have so often headed willy-nilly into Christmas, prepared only on the outside in terms of decorations and gifts and not on the inside in terms of my personal preparation for the holiness of the Christmas moment. Now I use these 12 days (and today marks the 6th day of Christmas) to ponder, to treasure the gift of Christ to me as an individual and to all of us as children of God.

This story of Jesus left behind in the Temple comes so quickly after Christmas in the scripture to remind us of several things. Jesus had a life ahead of him. He was going to grow up and sprout wings. And, as any parent will attest, those days from newborn to 12 years of age seem to disappear in the blink of an eye, just as the last six days since Christmas have also disappeared. It’s clear that Joseph and Mary raised their child in the Jewish faith. They taught him well about scripture and its meaning. They regularly made these trips to Jerusalem for the most holy of days. It was in that context that the boy developed an understanding, a certain wisdom about the scriptures. Children today are no different. While there are no guarantees against rebellion, having a strong basis in Sunday School or Temple School, in church or synagogue, in confirmation or Bar or Bat Mitzvahs, in a home where God is always placed first, all contribute to the ultimate understanding and wisdom of a child as he or she grows. In fact, there are not a few of us who did manage to survive our own rebellious years and were drawn back to the scriptures precisely because we had been given, early on, the context for understanding the importance of the scriptures in our lives.

Gillian, age 12, either just before or just after being left behind (twice) on a trip with her family. [Terry C. Anderson photo, all rights protected}

Gillian, age 12, either just before or just after being left behind (twice) on a trip with her family. [Terry C. Anderson photo, all rights protected}

Gillian said she was only a “little scared” the first time her parents left her behind. The second time she said she was “a little bit angry.” She had a right to both of those feelings. But what is clear to me is that she had no doubt that her parents loved her and would find her and that, in the meantime, she was blessed to be among people who she could trust and on whom she could depend: It was the community in which she was raised and the friends who she knew had roughly the same values as her parents.

The version of Luke 2:52 that I had to memorize as a child goes like this: “And Jesus grew in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.” We can have it today in a form that is more politically correct and more properly translated from the original Greek. What we know it means is that Jesus was able to find his identity and affirm his relationship to God in the context in which he was raised. Jesus was able to sprout his own wings, to become independent of his parents, but always realizing his dependency upon God.

When we hasten to put Christmas behind us, we run the great risk of putting Jesus behind us as well, leaving not only our children but ourselves completely out of context – out of context with the kind of people Jesus teaches us to be. Then we risk finding ourselves left behind in an increasingly secular and pluralistic world and without the kind of preparation, understanding and wisdom necessary to not just survive in it but to be the kind of people Jesus lived to teach us how to be. We forget that we are a community of faith and each of us is responsible for looking out for one another, whether we are in our senior years or a 12-year-old inadvertently left behind by our parents. Perhaps we can use the remaining six days of Christmas – and beyond – to consider how to let Jesus and the Holy Spirit lift us on wings that take us to a deeper relationship with God.



41 Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. 42 And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. 43 When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. 44 Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. 45 When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48 When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” 49 He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” 50 But they did not understand what he said to them. 51 Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart.

52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor. – Luke 2:41-52

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