A Game Of Hide And Seek
There are other stories of Jesus as a boy than this one. Fantastic stories of the child Jesus' magic tricks and unusual wisdom. Stories of Jesus' ability to dazzle childhood friends with his extraordinary power. But these stories never made it into our Bible. In fact, only this one story of Jesus' childhood did make it. And Luke has it. Matthew and Mark completely ignore these years moving quickly from birth story to the beginning of Jesus' ministry. John skips both birth and childhood and starts with Jesus' baptism. Luke is the only Gospel to say anything about Jesus' life between infancy and adulthood.
If Mary kept a scrapbook of Jesus as a child, Luke managed to obtain only one page. And by comparison to other stories told by non-biblical sources, this one is really quite restrained.
Jesus is twelve years old. His family has kept the custom of traveling each year to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. After the festival the Holy Family returns home. But this year is different. After traveling a day toward home, Joseph and Mary realize that their boy isn't with them. Now, a day's journey before realizing that Jesus is missing is not unusual. Those who make the pilgrimage to and from Jerusalem often traveled in large groups. This provided protection from bandits and wild animals. Children would play throughout the larger group under the watchful eye and care of the group. Returning to Jerusalem, Joseph and Mary looked for three days before finding Jesus.
What is unusual about this story is the shared response by both Jesus and his parents when he is found: astonishment! Joseph and Mary were astonished when they saw their son in the temple. Jesus was astonished that his parents didn't know where to look for him. After a brief conversation between son and parents, Luke tells us that the precocious Jesus returned to Nazareth with Mom and Dad and was obedient to them.
Astonishment is a curious response by Joseph and Mary. Curious because it suggests that where they found their son is not where they expected him to be. Three days they looked for their son. For three days they did not find him until they looked in the temple. Just where did they look before finding him in his Father's house?
One may suspect that this is precisely the question Luke wants us to ask: where do we expect to find Jesus? Some would immediately suggest that we would find Jesus in church: church understood as a building where the faithful gather for worship. Others would point away from any structure built by human hands and toward "where two or three are gathered in his name." Still others would argue that Jesus is found in the breaking of the bread and the cup poured out or in service "to the least of these." None of these answers would be wrong for they all help us become aware of Christ's presence.
Jesus answers his parents, "Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" In other words, "What did you expect?" In a surprising move, Luke does not ask the where question, Luke is interested in the what: "What do we expect?" It is not the "Where?" of finding Jesus that is important. Rather, the focus is on the "What?" of finding Jesus—"What was it that Jesus was doing?"
If the truth be told, Luke has given us a story of "hide and seek." But the traditional rules for play have been changed. Rather than finding the boy by looking for him here and there the game is played by asking, "What is important to him?" The game is about being involved in the "what" aspects of Jesus' ministry. Richard Ascough1 helps us by noting that as we engage in discovering and doing the will of God, we will find Jesus. Better still, he notes, it is Jesus who will find us.
Ascough observes that in the film Jesus of Montreal (1989), an actor, Daniel, is asked to perform in a passion play. In doing research on his subject a librarian brings him a number of books about Jesus. She then whispers furtively to him, "Looking for Jesus?" When he nods, she cryptically responds, "It is he that will find you." Sure enough, as the story progresses, Daniel's investigation of Jesus leads him to become more and more like Jesus in his day-to-day life.
George Eliot's short novel, Silas Marner,2 explores the theme of redemption brought through a little child. When the novel opens, Silas Marner, a myopic and cataleptic weaver, is living alone on the edge of a small, rural village in England in the early nineteenth century. He shuns all company and cares for no one. He is feared and disliked by the villagers. Marner isolates himself in this way because of devastating and bitter experiences that he suffered fifteen years earlier in another place. There he was betrayed by his best friend, abandoned by his fiancé and falsely accused and condemned by the members of the small, intense religious sect to which he belonged.
Thus Silas Marner was deprived of everything that makes life human; at almost one blow he lost love, friendship, community, and faith in God. He numbed his pain by turning to his work at the loom, losing himself in the mindless, endless repetitions.
Marner represents an early version of what we today might call a "workaholic." Like a modern workaholic, Marner compulsively accumulates money. It is made very clear that he derives no pleasure from what money can buy. His preoccupation is an addiction; he uses work and the accumulation of gold as a means of blunting the pain of an existence without human love or faith in God.
Marner exists for fifteen years in this alienated, death-in-life condition, his heart like a "locked casket." The first step towards his redemption occurs when he suffers yet another loss; his gold is stolen. His neighbors are intrigued by this mystery; some pity him and try to be helpful. Marner, who previously rejected any human overtures, is now somewhat more welcoming; he wants his gold back.
Freed by his devastating loss from his compulsively defensive behavior, Marner becomes vulnerable. This openness is expressed symbolically by his new habit of standing at night in his open doorway, looking out expectantly, hoping for a return of his stolen gold.
But something else comes through his newly opened door. A little blond child, whose opium-addicted mother has just died in the snow, wanders toward the light of Marner's hut, toddles through his open door and falls asleep on his hearth above the hole under the floorboards where the gold used to be hidden. Standing in the doorway, Marner experienced one of his fits of catalepsy. He recovers now and turns his myopic gaze towards his hearth.
"Gold!—his own gold—brought back to him as mysteriously as it had been taken away! He felt his heart beat violently…the heap of gold seemed to glow….He leaned forward at last and stretched forth his hand; but instead of the hard coin with the familiar resisting outline, his fingers encountered soft, warm curls."
Immediately the child calls Marner out of his numbed existence into responsive, feeling life. She is a bundle of needs, and he has no choice but to attend to them at once. She cries and Marner finally figures out that: "…the wet boots were the grievance, pressing on her warm ankles. He got them off with difficulty, and Baby was at once happily occupied with the primary mystery of her own toes, inviting Silas, with much chuckling, to consider the mystery too."
Marner understands that something much better than his gold has been returned to him. He adopts the baby and finds his salvation in responding to her needs and her love. Her delight in life awakens his delight; her physical needs awaken his nurturing love, and her spiritual needs rekindle his faith. Altogether she forges links for Marner to the community and through community worship to God. "…for the little child had come to link him once more with the whole world." Marner finds his redemption in caring for another person, one who came to his door helpless, inarticulate and needy. Once Silas Marner loved gold; now he loves a human being.
I suppose, when everything is said and done, that we are often like Marner, looking for one thing when what we truly need is something else altogether. We play "hide and seek" for the things we want—even when what we want is Jesus. But in the end, it will not be our searching here and there that will gain us what we seek. It will be us who are found—and used—by a child born in Bethlehem.
Doug Hood New Britain, PA
1. Richard S. Ascough, "The Season of Advent," New Proclamation, ed. Marshall D. Johnson (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), p. 58. 2. Ginger Grab, "Silas Marner: A Story for Christmas," The Living Pulpit: Christmas, Vol. 4 No.4 (Bronx, NY: The Living