Monday, January 8, 2018

Jesus's Not-So-Hidden Years

The liturgical season of Christmas ends today, January 8, with the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Tomorrow dawns the season of Ordinary Time.

Custom has encouraged us to see Jesus’ life on earth as a diptych:  the first panel, only vaguely filled in, is his dramatic early childhood, followed by the so-called “hidden years” of which the gospels tell no stories; the second panel, much clearer, portrays his public ministry.  So seething with activity are his public years after a long privacy that we tend to forget that Jesus lived his life as a whole, as we all do.

When he left Nazareth for the wilderness of Judea where John was baptizing and the desert where he wrestled with the Tempter and, finally, the towns and roads of Galilee and Judea, he did not come as a wide-eyed stranger seeing the world for the first time.  He had at least thirty years behind him, most of them probably spent in Nazareth and its environs. He was already the mature adult that experience and choice had made him.

Reading as most of us do in English, we imagine him to have spent those years doing carpentry for his fellow villagers.  However, the Greek word translated as “carpenter” actually means “builder” in a broader sense, so scholars have ventured to propose that he and Joseph might have been employed as construction workers on Herod Antipas’ ambitious new city of Tiberius, on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee.  The Gospels do not say. Wherever Jesus worked at whatever he worked at, he did more during those years than earn a living while he waited for the time when his public ministry would begin.  Rather, he gathered in what life in a Galilean village and its environs had to teach him about the world he had come to redeem. 

The nuclear family which some cultures within the United States take as the norm would have been rare in Palestine,  so we can surmise that Jesus grew up as part of typical extended family that included not only Mary and Joseph but all the other relatives who play cameo roles in the gospels:  his aunt, Mary’s sister, for example, and the various “brothers,” a kinship word that could refer to siblings or cousins, and no doubt others not mentioned in the gospels because they played no part in the unfolding of his public life.  He would have had plenty of neighbors to play with when he was young and to talk with when he grew older.  He was apparently no solitary dreamer but a relative and neighbor so unremarkable that the townsfolk couldn’t take in the startling claim he made later to be the one in whom Isaiah’s prophecy was fulfilled: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord” (Luke 4:18-19).  To them, he was the local carpenter, the son of Mary and Joseph, not the boy next door grown up to be the promised Messiah.

We know very few concrete details of his growing up, but we do know a good bit about what he observed, heard, thought about, and probed for images of the reign of God which he was bringing into being, both in his private years and in his public ministry.  He paid attention to the field anemones we know better as “the lilies of the field.”  He noticed birds, both as wild beneficiaries of God’s providence and as small, helpless victims of hunters and merchants.  He had an eye for the weather:  “red sky at night, shepherd’s delight, red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning,” or its Greek equivalent in Matthew’s gospel.  He seems to have paid a good bit of attention to local agriculture.  He was familiar with the cultivation of vines and fig trees.  Galilee served as the breadbasket of Palestine, and Jesus knew all about the sowing, harvesting, and grinding of wheat for flour, as well as the work of working yeast and flour together, kneading the dough, letting it rise, and baking it in the village bake ovens. 

He took note of the human landscape in which he lived as well.  He knew of family squabbles over inheritances.  He would have had no need to invent the parable of the prodigal son from scratch.  No doubt he knew a family or two where a younger son had taken off to sow his wild oats, with unhappy results.  He knew the pitfalls that could bring a wealthy landowner to a sorry end.  He had heard enough of the fabled bandits who prowled the Jericho road to give flesh to the parable of the Good Samaritan.  And he had obviously observed with compassion  the struggles of the poor to survive, the miseries of lepers, the pain of the blind, deaf, mute and disabled.  The human foibles, the human suffering, the human tragedies he met (and rewrote) during his public years did not come as news to him when he met them.

And, given his habit of withdrawing into solitary prayer during his ministry, we have to assume that he prayed, mulling over all he learned about the world and its human inhabitants  in communion with the Father and the Spirit.  That experience and that prayer became the meat of what he showed and taught about the reign of God which is God’s goal for us.  That God, whom we have come to know as  Father, Son and Spirit, is the architect and builder of all that is. And that God, says the Book of Genesis, saw all of creation as good. But the creation God loved most profoundly seems to have been, and still is, humanity.  Jesus, God’s love made flesh, took seriously the world into which had been sent, paid attention to it, understood it.  And that long learning and loving and comprehension did not begin when he first walked onto the beaches that ringed the Sea of Galilee.

So, as we reflect on the years of Jesus’ public years, let us remember what they grew out of.  Let us see the two panels of the traditional diptych together as the single life of the One who loved and redeemed it all.  As we do, we will come to know him more deeply.  Perhaps with St. Paul we will be come to say, “I … consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8).  Knowing grows into loving and serving.  Long, long ago, the old Baltimore Catechism hit the nail on the head when it taught us to say, “God made me to know, love and serve him in this world.” And, Jesus added with his second commandment of love, to know, love and serve one another. This Ordinary Time, by the gift of God’s creative love, let us seek to come closer to doing just that.

Copyright 2018, Abbey of St. Walburga

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