In our culture, twelve is not a noteworthy age. Sixteen is more likely to be celebrated because at that age you can get a driver’s license. At eighteen you can join the armed forces. As well, twenty-one has long been special because it’s celebrated as the age of our maturity.
Our culture recognizes each of these ages to some degree. But age twelve is not among them.
When Jesus lived on earth, it was different. In his Gospel, Luke, the evangelist, first gives details about Jesus’ birth and infancy. Then he reports in abundant detail on the approximate three years of his public ministry which began when he was thirty. But the period between his infancy and maturity is sometimes called the silent years — except for one event when he was twelve.
St. Luke tells his readers that Jesus attended his first Passover in Jerusalem when he reached that age. Why report this event standing alone during those “silent” years?
It is because in Jesus’ times among the Jews, twelve was a very important age. At that age a Jewish boy became known as a “son of the commandment” (later called “bar mitzvah”). A boy’s primary accountability was now to God through obedience to the Torah — the Law.
Some branches of Judaism continue to celebrate the same transition to manhood today. At the event the twelve-year-old lad begins his speech saying, “Today I am a man.” He is now old enough to take part in religious services, to form binding contracts, and to testify before religious courts. Some authorities say he has even reached the minimum age to marry.
So, at twelve years of age Jesus makes the trek along with his earthly parents, Mary and Joseph, covering ninety miles from Nazareth to Jerusalem. Here he sees for the first time the magnificent Herod’s temple, the throngs of pilgrims surging back and forth on its streets, the aged and bearded teachers holding forth in the temple’s courts. As we learn, his interest and involvement in the religious aspect of this great Jewish festival was keen for a lad of his age.
But the festival was over all too soon and his parents along with relatives and neighbors began walking the dusty roads back to Nazareth. At the end of the first day they searched for him among the company only to discover Jesus was not in the caravan. They were forced to turn back to the city. There they searched for three days for their son. They found him in the temple, listening to the teachers, asking and answering questions. You would think this an unlikely place and activity for a boy of his age to spend long periods of time.
When his parents found him and expressed their disappointment over the delay he had caused, he gave an unexpected reply: Why were you searching for me he asked. Did you not know I have to be in my father’s house?
There are a variety of explanations for this episode and why it stands alone to reflect his life as a twelve-year-old. For me, the most likely explanation is this: it was Jesus’ first awakening as to who his eternal Father really was. It was the beginning of his understanding of why he was in the world, and the beginning of his grasp of the meaning of his incarnation as the Son of God.
Whatever the case, it calls our attention to the spiritual development of sons and daughters today. Twelve-year-olds are more susceptible to deep truths about God than we may reckon. It’s the approximate age for their spiritual awakening.
Perhaps this insight should focus us all the more on the capacity any twelve-year-old in our circles has for religious knowledge.
Photo credit: Daniel Lawson (via flickr.com)