BIBLE READING: Luke 2: 41-52
One of the curious features about the Christian story is that we know nothing about Jesus before he began his public ministry around the age of thirty. We don't know what he looked like. The gospels don't tell us if he followed Joseph as a carpenter. Did he go to school? He didn't leave a single scrap of writing. The Gospels of Mark and John don't even include his birth, but begin with Jesus as an adult. This is not that unusual for that time in history. Ancient biographies often started with the public lives of their subjects, skipping over earlier years as irrelevant.
Still, it's hard not to speculate, especially when you consider that Mary could have told stories about her son. In the centuries after Jesus a genre of "infancy narratives" emerged to embellish the "missing" or "hidden" years of Jesus with fanciful legends. In the Infancy Gospel of Matthew animals speak at Jesus' nativity. In the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (c.140–170AD) Jesus curses a playground bully who consequently dies, then raises him to life with a spontaneous prayer. He turns clay pots into flying birds. In the Arabic Infancy Gospel (sixth century?) Jesus' nappy heals people, and his sweat cures leprosy. Other amazing stories claim that when Jesus was twelve he sailed to England with Joseph of Arimathea and built a church near Glastonbury to honour his mother Mary, or that between the ages of twelve to thirty he studied in India, Persia, or Tibet, etc.
The early church rejected these fables about Jesus, and instead followed the lead of the gospel writers by contenting itself with ignorance and silence about Jesus early years. This restraint about the hidden years of Jesus are remarkable, and reminders that the early believers were not gullible and naive when it came to sensationalist exaggerations about miracle stories. We do, however, have once brief exception to our otherwise total ignorance about the first thirty years of Jesus' life. Luke records the only biblical story we have about the years between Jesus birth and his public ministry, and it is much more dull and ordinary than we might wish. It is the story of the twelve-year-old Jesus in the Jerusalem temple.
Luke writes that every year Joseph and Mary made the 240km roundtrip from Nazareth to Jerusalem in order to celebrate the Feast of Passover. When he was twelve years old, about 30 kilometres into the return trip home to Nazareth his parents discovered that Jesus was missing from their caravan of family and friends. Any parent can imagine the terror that they must have felt when they couldn't find their son. After a second day to return to Jerusalem, on the third day they found the boy Jesus in the temple, "sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions." When Mary rebuked him it became apparent that Jesus was not accidentally lost, but that he had deliberately stayed behind: "Didn't you know that I had to be in my Father's house?" Mary and Joseph didn't understand this mysterious response. After their safe return to Nazareth Jesus "was obedient to them. . . [He] grew in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man" (cf. 2:40).
Two points in Luke's story deserve mention. He reminds us that Jesus was a normal little boy who experienced genuine human development—physically, mentally, morally, and spiritually. Jesus authentic humanity is precisely what the legendary "infancy narratives" obscure. The story also hints at the tension between how Jesus would deal with his desire to be obedient to God the Father and his willing obedience to his earthly parents. Eventually that obedience gave way to a radical disruption, for by the time of his public ministry his own family tried to silence him and the entire village of Nazareth tried to kill him as a deranged madman (cf. Mark 3:21, Luke 4:29, John 7:5).
But that's all. These two points do nothing to fill in the thirty years of silence about the hidden years of Jesus. Jesus' early life was so insignificant, so ordinary, and so secluded in obscure Nazareth that there was nothing relevant to report.
If we let Jesus silent, missing years stand at face value instead of filling them with some deep meaning, they speak volumes in our media-saturated world of celebrity culture, self-promotion, and endless noise. His hidden years just might hold the clues to a counter-cultural "spirituality of invisibility and obscurity." For most people today (and Christians are no exception), personal identity and fulfilment depend upon being well-known not unknown, visible and not invisible, acknowledged rather than ignored, important instead of insignificant, and in demand rather than out of commission. But when we consider how thoroughly "invisible" Jesus was for the majority of his life, leaving no footprint of who he was or what he did during those years, we can begin to condier what a spirituality of obscurity, seclusion, and hiddenness might look like.
Most of us live hidden and unheralded lives. I think of Gary, a stay-at-home dad struggling to find work while singlehandedly raising, two children with all their demands - the dentist, school, birthday parties and sporting events. My friend Bill who is practically house-bound due to contracting leprosy as a young man in Indonesia. Rhonda raised a family who now all live overseas, and now she lives alone in a tiny unit as an elderly widow. Other believers have intentionally chosen hiddenness. The Trappist monk Thomas Merton (1915–1968) spent twenty-seven years cloistered in Gethsemane Monastery in Kentucky, but nevertheless spoke to the entire world with his prophetic writings. Georgene has reminded us over the past weeks entire countries remain invisible to the world because they are so insignificant to the powerful people; you won't see a story about world toilet day unless it is as a joke on commercial TV.
For Christians, the paradox is that the missing majority of Jesus' life, is that no matter how completely lost to history, it wasn't lost or hidden to God! Nor are our lives today. Sudan, Gaza, and Myanmar (Burma) are not hidden to God, even though the world ignores them. My grandmother raised 5 children practically by herself – struggling with an alcoholic abusive husband. When he died she spent the next 40 years in poor health, in a small home in Newcastle. Yet none of those years were lost to God. God sees and knows; God loves and cares. God does not ask us to lament or transcend our invisibility to the world. God might even disrupt our lives by asking us to try it. However hidden and obscure our lives might feel, either literally or figuratively, whether voluntary or involuntary, God is present, just as God was with a twelve year old Jewish boy from an obscure Palestinian village.
* What do
you think Jesus was like as a boy?
* Does our near total ignorance of his early years matter? Why?
* What do you take from Luke's story?
* Have you ever experienced hidden years?
Acknowledgement: Daniel B. Clendenin