It was an innocent question.
It was, in fact, one of the most innocent questions ever asked in the entire history of the world. This astonishing claim I urge with great confidence because the question under consideration was asked by Her who was perfectly and uniquely innocent — immaculate, in fact, and full of grace.
Our Lady was a good question asker. Of Her “seven words” recorded in Holy Scripture, two are questions, both of which are recorded by Saint Luke.
A cynic might accuse me of saying very much based upon very little. How can a woman who asked only two questions be so good at it?
We have quality in mind, not quantity. Quality, not so much in the formulation of the questions — although She was quite good at that, too — but in knowing what to ask, and why, and how to react. Above all, She did what many of us do not do, even when we ask questions we find quite clever: She listened attentively and pondered what she heard. Moreover, in both instances the resulting answer and Her cooperation with it were fruitful for Her own sanctification and for the salvation of the world.
Her first question, which is also Her “first word,” is recorded in Luke 1:34: “And Mary said to the angel: How shall this be done, because I know not man?”
We know how She was answered. In Her question, She had tested the spirit (cf. I John 4:1). Having received the reply, She prudently scrutinized the words of Saint Gabriel, saw that this course of action would in no way violate her vow of chastity, and gave Her consent to what was evidently a divine proposal. What resulted was the Incarnation of the Logos and the consequent salvation of the world.
Our Lady listened very well in this conversation with Saint Gabriel. Beyond correctly discerning his words regarding the Incarnation, She attended to a fact that the Angel reported in order to illustrate the real possibility of a virginal conception, namely, the pregnancy of her elderly cousin Elizabeth, who was previously barren. Mary heard these words and, after giving her consent to the Incarnation, charitably acted upon them by betaking Herself “with haste” to the hill country of Juda, there to assist her cousin.
Now, we can look at the second question, which is Her “fifth word.” It comes from the next chapter of Saint Luke, in the context of the fifth joyful mystery of the Rosary, the Finding of Our Lord in the Temple. Here, Mary and Joseph have just found Jesus “in the midst of the doctors”:
And seeing him, they wondered. And his mother said to him: Son, why hast thou done so to us? behold thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing. And he said to them: How is it that you sought me? did you not know, that I must be about my father’s business? And they understood not the word that he spoke unto them. And he went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them. And his mother kept all these words in her heart. And Jesus advanced in wisdom, and age, and grace with God and men. (Luke 2:48-53)
Our Lord, at twelve years old, had just astonished with “his wisdom and his answers” (2:47) the very doctors of the law — the teachers, that is, who spent their days studying the Mosaic Law. He astonished them by “hearing them, and asking them questions” (2:46). While some commentators note that Jesus was showing His humility by asking questions and not simply teaching his elders, asking questions as a method of teaching has long been conventional. This pedagogical technique, famously employed by Socrates, is still used today. It was most certainly standard practice in the Rabbinical schools of Our Lord’s time.
Our Lord always did the will of His Father: “I do always the things that please him” (John 8:29). It was evidently His Father’s will, and therefore the will of the Holy Trinity (for the Three Persons have one Will in common) that Mary and Joseph would suffer this pain of losing our Lord in the Temple, which pain constitutes the third of Our Lady’s seven sorrows. The Incarnate Logos willed this sorrow in common with His Father and the Holy Ghost, and His sacred humanity assented to this divine plan — which means that the human intellect of Our Lord knew of it, His will consented to it completely, and His twelve-year-old human operations carried out all that was necessary to implement it. If the theory is true that Joseph and Mary made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem in a caravan that was divided according to sex, and that, at Jesus’ age, He could have been with either the men or the women, then Jesus carried on in such a way as to allow His Mother to think He was with Saint Joseph and vice-versa. (They would have discovered Him missing when the whole caravan met together at some interval on the way.) This would mean that a Divine Person, who can neither deceive nor be deceived, arranged it so that “Joseph most prudent,” and “the most prudent Virgin” — to accord them titles from their respective litanies — both operated under these false impressions.
When She asked Our Lord “Son, why hast thou done so to us?”, the Virgin knew that He was no ordinary twelve-year-old. She knew that He was the “son of the Most High” (Luke 1:32), the “Son of God” (Luke 1:35), the “Lord” (Luke 1:43), and the “prophet of the Highest” (Luke 1:76). She knew, then, that neither adolescent mischief nor youthful distraction had occasioned this painful and inconvenient separation of three days. She knew that He acted with a purpose. But what might that purpose have been?
In reply, Our Lady received not one, but two questions from Our Lord: “How is it that you sought me? did you not know, that I must be about my father’s business?”
There is a joke about an Irish-American who frequently answered questions with questions. It seems a non-Irish American was exasperated by this habit and fumed, “Why do you Irish insist on answering a question with a question?” To which the son of Erin earnestly replied, “What’s wrong with that?”
Answering questions with questions is often a deflection. But in the case of the Eternal and Incarnate Wisdom, it evidently serves a higher purpose. It would seem to me that this purpose is to challenge, to invite God’s friend to “go up higher” (Luke 14:10). In the case of Our Lady, She rose to the challenge, for, although She “understood not the word that he spoke unto them,” She “kept all these words in her heart.” That is, She contemplated the words of the Divine Word. Given Her past performance, we must assume that this pondering was fruitful.
Without pretending to have Her wisdom, we ought to imitate the virtues She here displays, and try to contemplate His words. So why did Our Lord “do so” to Our Lady and Saint Joseph? Surely, this is a mystery about which we can know something, if not everything. To say that it was God’s will that He did so would be true, but not sufficient. All that Jesus did was God’s will, yet we can find additional and more specific explanations of His various acts beyond that general truth. Here are my personal speculations, presented in no particular order, which the reader may take or leave:
- That Our Lady could experience, in mystical fashion, the sorrow of sinners who “lose God” by mortal sin. She could not experience the reality of such a loss, but this painful separation must have given her innocent mind a powerful image of the anguished state of the sinner who knows his separation from God. This knowledge would suit her office as “Mother of Mercy.”
- That the Doctors of the Law, whom Jesus had already “astonished,” might overhear this conversation. Had they indeed heard it, Our Lord’s reference to God as His Father would not have been lost on them. If they desired to check Our Lord’s (Messianic) lineage, they could do so conveniently; the records were kept in the Temple. Perhaps they kept this knowledge among themselves, and this explains the sympathetic hearing that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus later gave Our Lord.
- That Saint Joseph would have a mystical experience, ahead of time, of the sacred triduum that would happen only after his holy death. Jesus was lost, but then found on the third day. Mary would experience the triduum in actual reality; the Patriarch of Nazareth would not. (Saint Ambrose notes that the finding in the temple is an allegory of the Resurrection.)
- To give us the saintly example of Mary and Joseph in the face of sorrow and affliction. When She did not understand the mystery of God’s ways, Mary did not protest them, but silently kept these things in Her Heart. Such a contemplative approach to life’s problems, under the influence of grace, is bound to be fruitful.
- To give the world an example of detachment from parents in the pursuit of God’s will. If Jesus was detached from such worthy and good parents for the purpose of doing God’s will, a fortiori must we be. This includes the matter of vocations and states in life, where misplaced parental affection, as Saint Alphonsus Maria de Liguori assures us, can often be a hindrance.
- As a sign that the trials, sorrows, and afflictions God sends us are not a sign that He no longer loves us. God sent Mary numerous sorrows (“O all ye that pass by the way, attend, and see if there be any sorrow like to my sorrow” [Lam. 1:12], the Church applies to Her), yet He loved Her more than any other created person. This is an important lesson for our soft, sentimental, and effeminate age. “Casting all your care upon him, for he hath care of you,” Saint Peter says (I Pet. 5:7), and God sometimes sends us afflictions precisely because of the care — for His glory and for our salvation. But He does so as our Father: “For whom the Lord loveth, he chastiseth; and he scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. Persevere under discipline. God dealeth with you as with his sons; for what son is there, whom the father doth not correct? But if you be without chastisement, whereof all are made partakers, then are you bastards, and not sons” (Heb. 12:6-8).
- Related to the preceding point, to show us that, in this veil of tears, joys and sorrows are intermingled, and that, for our sanctification. This third sorrow of Mary is also the occasion of the fifth joyful mystery.
Jesus’ two-question response to Our Lady’s question was a challenge and an invitation, not a rebuke. Of course Mary and Joseph should have sought for Him. And they had no way of knowing that He intended to remain in the Temple. Had He told them so ahead of time, they would no doubt have remembered this. Jesus often challenged His listeners with seeming rebukes in order to get them to think, to ponder the realities which lay under the surface.
Which leads us to a tropological interpretation of the mystery. If Jesus so acted with His innocent parents, how much more appropriate is it that we who are sinners should be challenged and knocked about by the crosses God sends us, and the rebukes (deserved or not) we sometimes receive from our fellow servants.
Spiritual writers like Saint Francis de Sales distinguish between God’s “will signified” and His “will of good pleasure.” The will signified is expressed clearly in the commandments of God and the Church, as well as those additional precepts one might have imposed upon him by lawful authority (e.g., by the rule or constitutions of a religious order). The will of good pleasure embraces all the events and circumstances of one’s life, some of which are pleasurable, others painful. God wills these things upon us for His glory and for our good. In his wonderful The Interior Life Simplified and Reduced to Its Fundamental Principle (pg. 138), the Carthusian spiritual writer, Dom François de Sales Pollien (1853-1936), explains this alternation of joys and sorrows that are part of God’s will signified:
He alternates and combines these two ways of acting, intermingling sorrow more or less with joy, prolonging a pleasure or a suffering, replacing the one with the other, just as in the material sphere He makes sunshine follow rain, the calm succeed the storm. … [T]he divine operations are almost always an alternation of gifts which console, enlighten, and kindle, and of deprivations which bring desolation, blindness, and impotence. …
What is the reason of the joys and trials of my life? He does not send consolation, indeed, for the puerile purpose of amusing me, nor does He send suffering for the cruel purpose of torturing me. God acts neither as a child nor as an executioner, He acts as a Father; His conduct towards me is always that of one who is serious and fatherly. … He intends to be a Father to me in all things, that is to say, He wishes to give me His life. And to lead me unto life, He is bent upon liberating me and encouraging me. He is bent upon liberating me, and this is the chief reason of my sufferings. He is bent upon encouraging me, and this is the chief reason for my consolations.
Our Lady’s Sorrows were for God’s glory and the salvation of souls, but they were not expiatory for sin — at least not for Her sins, because She had none. Our Lady did not have to do penance for sin or be weaned away from inordinate attachments as we do. This is one difference between Her sorrows and ours. We deserve them; She did not. For the Immaculate One, the sorrows God sent Her were those of a Mother, who would also be Co-Redemptrix and Mediatrix of grace. They would therefore be sublimely fruitful for Her children.
There was a great elapse of time between Our Lady’s fifth and sixth words, a long silence of eighteen years. Her sixth and seventh words were spoken at the Wedding Feast of Cana, and recorded by Saint John. She asked no questions on that occasion, but made one brief declarative statement to Jesus, “They have no wine” (John 2:3) and one brief imperative statement to the waiters, “Whatsoever he shall say to you, do ye” (John 2:5). In the sixth word, She presents Her divine Son with a problem to solve; in the seventh (and last), She commanded men to assist Him in solving it. Jesus then publicly set about His Father’s business by working His “beginning of miracles” that “manifested his glory” (John 2:11).
It seems that all those years of keeping His words in Her Heart had borne fruit.