Sunday, December 25, 2005

The Childhood of Jesus of Nazareth

Now that Christmas has arrived, many of us in the Northeast U.S. are right this very minute huddled around the Christmas tree, clutching our robes about us for warmth, as we poke our hands through dry fir needles in search of the next brightly wrapped gift for giving. Whether we know it or not, however, this holiday's most essential activity involves spending uninterrupted time with the children in our lives -- if not our own (as in my case, since I don't have any), then those of our loved ones.

With sugary treats, new toys and tinsel drifting around our living rooms like confetti, within one 24-hour period we have the opportunity to see the great gamut of childhood's humours: the wide-eyed excitement, the wild, unfocused kinetic energy, the selfishness, the rash misjudgments -- but also, the gratitude, the love, and the peaceful sleep that follows a day of thrills and spills. Everything that our children are can be found in this one day -- which is probably why so many adults who are not so used to being around children sometimes dread Christmastime.

This day also reminds us that Jesus of Nazareth, the oft unnamed subject of today's festivities, was once a child, too. But what was he like as a child?

The historical Jesus is a shadowy figure, one not easily revealed even by the most literal reading of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, given the narrative contradictions, gaps and pointed allusions to Old Testament prophecy. The most obvious and formative of the latter is the New Testament’s identification of Jesus as the Messiah who would lead his people to glory, a fulfillment of the visions of the prophets that a great king, descended from the line of David, would be born in Bethlehem and "execute judgment and righteousness on the Earth" (Jeremiah 23:5, Micah 5:2).

Whether or not Jesus was born in Bethlehem is even a matter of dispute within the Gospels themselves (St. John apparently thinks not), but millions of us Christians have been schooled in the story of how an angel came to Mary (who was betrothed to Joseph, a carpenter) and told her that by a miraculous virginal conception she would bear the son of God; and that the couple traveled to Bethlehem from Nazareth together to appear for a Roman census, and there Mary gave birth to Jesus in a manger, among the sheep and the shepherds as their was no room in the local inn.

Following in the prophetic vein, Matthew relates that Herod, king of Judea, heard about the birth of a future great king in Bethlehem and ordered a massacre of all male children in Bethlehem under the age of 2. Fleeing from Herod’s butchery, Mary and Joseph took their infant son (foster son, in Joseph’s case) and hid in Egypt.

After the flight to Egypt, the Gospels tell us little of Jesus’ youth, but the Apocryphal Gospels of Thomas and James give life to other uncomfortable legends, illustrating Jesus’ awareness of his own divinity and his impatience with ordinary mortals. The stories tell of how he frequently scared his playmates by performing minor miracles, once even turning the neighborhood children into goats, causing their mothers to cry; of how he exhausted the patience of his teachers by professing to know more than them; and how his parents had to suffer eviction by suspicious landlords due to Jesus’ supernatural mischief, until they finally returned to the back country in Nazareth. These legends are indeed uncomfortable, for we are unaccustomed to seeing Jesus acting in this way, but they are nonetheless familiar. It is the kind of normal childhood petulance that we encounter every day, with the added feature of Jesus' divinity fueling its volume.

St. Luke next finds Jesus when he was 12, at the traditional age of one's bar mitzvah, on a trip to Jerusalem with his parents. When his parents leave to return to Nazareth, Jesus stays behind, and 3 days later they find him in the Temple, firing sharp questions at the rabbis.

"Why are you looking for me?" Jesus asks. "Did you not know that I must be in my father’s house?" His vocation, it seems, is taking hold in him.

All of this gives us something to remember when we assess the humours of our own precocious, mischeivous children on this day filled with unusual holiday treats: there will come a time when, like this Jesus in the Temple, a sense of purpose will take hold in them, and our young man or young woman will decide for themselves to "put aside childish things." It may not happen at age 12, but it will happen -- in some measure, some day.

In the meantime, most of us need not worry about our children turning the other neighborhood children into goats -- so at least we can be thankful for that.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

What leads you to think that baby Jesus turned children into goats. Must say it is an amusing idea!


9:21 AM  
Blogger RSchuler said...

In the Apocryphal "Infancy Gospel of Thomas," there is the following passage:

And it came to pass that Jesus went out one day and saw a company of children playing together, and went after them, but they fled before him and went into a cellar. And Jesus came after them and stood by the door and said unto the women who were sitting there: Where are the children who came in here before me? And the women said unto Jesus: No children came here. Then Jesus said unto them: Then what are the beings that are inside the house? And the women said unto him: They are goats. And Jesus said unto them: Let the goats which are in the cellar go out to their shepherds. And there came forth from the cellar goats which leaped round about Jesus and skipped joyfully. And when the women had seen what had taken place, they wondered, and great fear laid hold upon them.

According to the Gospel, Jesus subsequently turns the goats back into children.

At least one of the early church fathers, Irenaeus, is known to have referred to legends contained in the "Infancy Gospel of Thomas." Scholars believe that the sources for the material were local, perhaps in Syria, and that it was written down in the middle of the 2nd Century A.D.

9:46 AM  

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