Search

Christ’s Rite of Passage

The earliest mention of a Bar Mitzvah as a religious coming-of-age ceremony is traced to the fifteenth century. The Bar Mitzvah that we know today—with the reading from Torah, chanting, and giving of a reflection—did not gain popularity until the eighteenth century.[1] So even though Jesus was a practicing Jew, it is safe to say that He did not have a Bar Mitzvah. The tradition was not established for more than a thousand years after Christ turned thirteen.


Even though Jesus did not have a Bar Mitzvah, Jesus did experience a rite of passage, as accounted in the Gospel of Luke:


“Each year his parents went to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, and when he was twelve years old, they went up according to festival custom. After they had completed its days, as they were returning, the boy Jesus remained behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Thinking that he was in the caravan, they journeyed for a day and looked for him among their relatives and acquaintances, but not finding him, they returned to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions, and all who heard him were astounded at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished, and his mother said to him, “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.” And he said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them. He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart. And Jesus advanced [in] wisdom and age and favor before God and man.”

—Luke 2:41–52


The Finding in the Temple is a story of Mary and Joseph losing their son Jesus, frantically searching for Him, and eventually finding Him in the temple, conversing with teachers of Jewish law. But what about this story makes it Christ’s rite of passage?


Firstly, it occurs at the appropriate age for a rite of passage. It is the only story of Christ’s childhood found in the Gospels that is not related to His birth. Luke notes that this story occurred when Jesus “was twelve years old”—at the end of His childhood and right before Jesus became a teenager. Christ’s age is intentionally included in this story, and it is an important detail that gives us a clue to what the story is all about.



Secondly, the Finding in the Temple fits the three basic criteria for a rite of passage. There is separation from His parents when “the boy Jesus remained behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it.” In the ancient world, it would have been very dangerous for a twelve-year-old boy to wander the streets of Jerusalem alone. Mary and Joseph had good reason to be filled with “great anxiety” that someone might take advantage of their precious Son.


Jesus also experienced a challenge: “they found him sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” Jesus engaged in open discussion with grown men at the temple, which was the center of Jewish intellectual and spiritual life. Although we are not told what Christ said, the teachers who He spoke with must have been given the lesson of a lifetime, as “all who heard him were astounded at his understanding and his answers.” The twelve-year-old Jesus was a child prodigy, holding His own while playing in the big league.


Note Jesus’s response when Mary and Joseph finally found Him: “Why were you looking for me?” Jesus was straightforward and spoke as a grown-up would. He did not run back into their arms crying or ask for their forgiveness like a child might. Instead, Jesus made it clear that it was time for Mary and Joseph to accept that their Son had a divine mission and to surrender their protective instincts as parents and begin the process of “letting go.”


Next, He said, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” This line makes it abundantly clear that Jesus—the Son of the Father—found His masculine identity in His relationship with His heavenly Father. He did not find it through physical achievements or personal tests of character like other boys might; He found His identity by being in His Father’s presence. The importance of father—both earthly and heavenly—in a preteen boy’s life is so beautifully portrayed here.


Finally, there is the incorporation back into the family. “He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them.” Once Mary and Joseph accepted that their Son was no longer a boy but had entered manhood, He was ready to return home. He went back to His childhood home with His parents, but His relationship with them was forever changed.

What were the results of Christ’s rite of passage? How did this event change Him? The Gospel says that He “advanced [in] wisdom and age and favor before God and man.” Clearly, those three days alone helped Him continue to grow and mature so that one day He could fulfill the mission that His Father had sent Him for.

[1]. “What is a bar mitzvah?” The Conversation, https://theconversation.com/what-is-a-bar-mitzvah-129745#:~:text=The%20first%20use%20of%20bar,two%20or%20three%20major%20components