When Jesus was a young boy, Joseph would sometimes take him along on some trip to a neighboring town where he had contracted work to do or had business to transact, though these journeys were not frequent, for Joseph usually had enough work in Nazareth to occupy his time.
One of the towns they visited had a pool with live fishes swimming about which the lad loved to watch. As they flashed by he would slip his hand into the water to catch them and then thoughtfully let them go. He must have wordlessly known even then that he himself was the great Fish descended from the heavenly "water above the firmament," come to impregnate the earth with the Spirit of God the Father, and that one day he, too, would return whence he had come.
He was also to become the greatest of Fishermen, the Fisher of Men, and as he grew older began to take a keen interest in watching the fishermen on the Sea of Galilee casting their nets in the deeper waters offshore.
He and his father could walk the fifteen miles quite easily in one day's journey, if the weather was not too hot, to the town of Magdala at the edge of the Sea of Galilee. Capernaum was five miles farther on. In either town they could remain with friends or relatives until their business was finished, and then return home to Nazareth. Hospitality was an honored virtue, born of expedience in those lands where nature was not always kind, and a drink of water could mean the difference between life and death.
During his teen-age years, Jesus could easily make this trip by himself, or with boyish companions, and grew quite familiar with the entire area.
There were several times of feast and festival during the year, and as was the case in most ancient lands, these festivals were based on the times of seasons and crops upon which their lives depended. More strongly emphasized by the Jews was the tie-in with certain directives and religious experiences of their ancestors which were being celebrated simultaneously. The greatest of these feasts was that of Passover at the beginning of Spring, which commemorated the time when the children of Israel were seeking to leave Egypt for the Promised Land under the leadership of Moses and at this time the angel of death had come over Egypt to convince the Pharaoh to let them go. As proof that this was a serious matter, he smote every firstborn of the land, both man and beast, except the children of Israel. For they had been warned they would be saved if the blood of a lamb was smeared over the doorposts and the lintels of their doors -- then would the angel pass over their household and death would not touch them.
At midnight every firstborn child in Egypt, from the Pharaoh even to those of the cattle, died, but the Hebrews were saved. Pharaoh was convinced and gave in to their demands. Calling Moses and Aaron, his brother, he told them to leave Egypt with their families at once. God instructed them that this would henceforth be for them the first month of the year for the Jews and that his day should be celebrated as a memorial day always. The exact instructions can be read in the twelfth chapter of Exodus.
Thus the Passover was a day of special importance to all the nation, celebrating the great time when God parted the waters of the Sea to let Moses and the children of Israel pass safely through ahead of the chariots of the pursuing Pharaoh (who meanwhile changed his mind). It was the sacred obligation of all male adults who were reasonably able, to attend the feast in Jerusalem. This was of seven days duration, though one was permitted to leave after the third day if he chose. Since these people must come from all parts of Palestine to their only Temple, the roads were lined with pilgrims traveling in groups, which, as they neared Jerusalem were joined by other groups. There must have been a great festive atmosphere, especially for the children who went along, as friend greeted old friend, and much excitement was in the air. Being spring, the weather was at its fairest, and wild flowers spread color generously afield, while soft young green carpeted the hillside.
Jerusalem, too, carried almost a carnival aspect as the crowds poured in, for along with the religious celebration it was a time to shop and visit and catch up on business that could only be done in their great capitol. Sightseeing pleasure was somewhat clouded by the presence of Roman soldiers patrolling the streets and what might have been delight in viewing the palace of their king was darkened by the sordid tales of dastardly royal deeds. Comforts and accommodations were probably few, as the city was too crowded to worry over such details.
All were obliged to consume the Passover meal in groups (or "families") of between ten and twenty persons at one table, so these groups were organized before leaving home, and those with relatives in Jerusalem would go to the appropriate houses.
Each group had to provide its lamb for the sacrifice, and the lamb was slaughtered at Jerusalem in the Temple itself, by the family head chosen for that particular group. Its blood was then given to the priests who sprinkled it on the Altar of Holocausts, then the animal was skinned and its entrails removed, and it was carried back to the family group who must roast and consume it all that night.
Later when Rome gathered statistics on such things, it was found that one year, on the afternoon before the Passover feast, over 255,000 sacrificial lambs were slaughtered in the Temple, and one can but imagine how the stones of the Temple ran red with such quantities of blood, and a sensitive person might have become dizzy at the odor and the sounds.
The gospel story tells us that Mary and Joseph went every year. Although women and children under thirteen were not obliged to attend, many women did go with their husbands and children, and for Mary to return to the Temple of her childhood days was like a homecoming. So we can surmise that Jesus was taken even as a small child, and probably himself felt quite at home there by the time he was twelve.
The distance from Nazareth was about 88 miles, so that pilgrims formed little caravans that traveled and spent the night together. The tradition behind such oriental caravans is one of much freedom, and only in the evening would all come together again as they reached the stopover point mutually agreed upon for the night. It was natural for a twelve-year-old boy to move freely about, talking to whomsoever he would, so on the return home they did not notice his absence until the evening, then searching for him everywhere in vain they were aghast. For had they now failed the charge given them of God, to bring up this child until the day when he would proclaim himself to all Israel as their Savior?
St. Luke tells us of this Passover feast thus: Now his (Jesus') parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the Passover, and when he was twelve years old, went up according to custom; and when the feast was ended, as they started for home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know of this, but supposing him to be in the party they journeyed on for a whole day, and only then did they begin looking for him among their kinsfolk and acquaintances; and when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, seeking him.
After three days they found him in the Temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions; and all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and the answers he gave. His parents were astonished to see him there and his mother said to him, "Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously."
And he said to them, "How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" And they did not understand the saying which he spoke to them. Then he went back with them to Nazareth and was obedient to them, and his mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man.
Aware as he was at an early age of his extraordinary powers, Jesus could not have been particularly humble as a boy, and he had been taught religion and the Law all his life, both by his parents and by the rulers of his local synagogue, as most boys were. He felt himself quite at ease with these learned men, because their conversation was of those things he had come to devote his life to.
He had developed a surprising freedom of outlook along with divine insight, for a Jewish boy growing to manhood as Jesus had in an area surrounded by Gentiles, and in contact with foreigners from all parts of the world, was exposed to a more varied experience than most citizens of Jerusalem or of a Judean town. The ancient caravan route from Egypt which came up the Mediterranean coast passed near to Nazareth on its way northeast toward Damascus, Babylon, India, and China! How could a boy fail to be interested in such variety and with the improbability of God's exclusive concern for one people only, when daily before his eyes came "many from east and west" -- Gentiles who might also be seeking not only the riches of this world but also the Kingdom of God.
Therefore, he had much to say to those Temple doctors, and listening to them greatly opened his own understanding of what he faced ahead. It was his first real taste of the work to come, which he was eager to begin, and he savored the idea that he was now a man. They sat under the Porch of the Gentiles where the masters came together to participate in their ardent and bitter discussions. As always, the arrival of rabbis from distant places had increased the animation of the debating doctors and their disciples.
One who has seen the Eastern synagogues or mosques at the hour of teaching will not wonder at the scene. A circle is made round the doctors, all of whom sit on mats, listening, asking and answering by turns. Young and old are seated side by side; the teachers and all may speak.
It was inevitable that here should shine forth some of the divine wisdom with which Jesus was filled. It was here the mind of Jesus is revealed for the first time in this mysterious speech. His whole life in its fullness of the divine sonship, his sovereign initiative, his heavenly vocation and his life in its smallest detail would be the accomplishment of this that was spoken in his twelfth year. Neither Jesus nor Mary understood the full import of it, except that it was too soon.
But he was well taught in respect and obedience. Thus after his reply to Mary that he was in his proper place here teaching in the Temple, Jesus realized that this was not yet his time to do so, and wisdom required that he still submit to parental guidance as a means of self-discipline to achieve that holy perfection required by His Father in heaven. So he obeyed the voice of Spirit, and returned home with them to Nazareth. Maturity was needed for such a mission; there was still a little way to go.
In Mary's own words, as revealed to a mystic, we gain this loving glimpse:
"He acted like other children until he grew up. Nothing unclean ever touched him, nor was the least disorder ever seen in his hair. When he grew older, he was constantly in prayer. His features and his words were so wonderful and so pleasing that many persons when in trouble used to say: Let us go to Mary's son -- he will console us!
"As he grew in age, he worked with his hands, and he talked with us so inspiringly about God that we were continually filled with indescribable joy. And when we were in fear, in poverty, and in trouble, he did not produce gold and silver for us, but urged us to be patient, and we were marvelously protected.
"What we needed was sometimes given to us by compassionate and devout persons, and sometimes came from our work, so that we had what was needed to live on, but nothing superfluous, for we sought only to serve God. At home, with friends who visited us, he talked familiarly about the Law of God and its meaning. He also openly disputed with learned men, so that they were astonished and used to say, 'Joseph's son instructs the Scribes -- there is great spirit in him!'
"He was so obedient that when Joseph said to him: 'Do this' or 'Do that,' he did it at once, for he concealed the power of his Divinity in such a way that it could only be perceived by myself and at times by Joseph. Very often we saw him surrounded by a wonderful light and heard angels' voices singing over him. We also observed that unclean spirits, which could not be cast out by official exorcists, fled at the sight of my son's presence."