What was Jesus of Nazareth like as a child? Luke the gospel-writer offers us one fleeting glimpse:
Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travellers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, ‘Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.’ He said to them, ‘Why were you searching 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. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart.
And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favour. (LUKE 2:41-52, NRSV)
What a smart-aleck kid! Still, these few verses are precious, because they are the only record of the childhood of Jesus in the canon of Scripture. And they paint a picture of a very human adolescent boy—precocious, but solidly human.
Luke seems determined to portray Jesus as one whose humanity cannot be disputed. And this emphasis is apparent from the very beginning. In his account of Jesus’ birth, Luke is careful to frame events within the context of time and place. As he recounts the details of the journey of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, he tells us (Luke 2:1-7):
- that a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered;
- that this took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria;
- that Joseph went to Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David; and
- that Mary gave birth to Jesus in a barn and laid him in a feed-trough.
With these details, Luke anchors Jesus firmly in Israel’s history, and provides important markers of his humanity. He didn’t just drop down out of the sky, but entered the world as all of us do. Luke’s Jesus begins life in surroundings that are grubby, poor, and ordinary, with two very human parents. We must never forget this.
Too often, too many of us speak and act as if we believe that baby Jesus in the manger was already perfectly and omnisciently divine—as if his heavenly origin and destiny meant that he was incapable of being anything else but the perfect person.
But look: if we assume that Jesus had no formation—that he was without the common human experiences of facing limitations, of going through adolescence, of learning—then we imply that he was not human, but superhuman. In other words, someone who was not really one of us.
When we imagine Jesus as a young man—when we try to fill in those “lost years” before he began his ministry at about age 30—what do we imagine? Do we ever allow him to have doubts? Or argue with his parents? Or experience peer pressure? Or sibling rivalry? Can we imagine him being tempted to lie, or manipulate, or lash out in anger? Can we imagine him, in other words, behaving as we do?
If not, what do we make of the Christian church’s insistence that Jesus was “fully human” and “fully divine” (or “true God and true man,” as an old Catechism puts it)?
A few years ago, in a Confirmation class I was running, a bright teenager pointed out something which should have been obvious—but wasn’t (at least, not to me). She argued that if Jesus was really and truly human—really and truly “like us”—then he must have been capable of making mistakes. As she pointed out: “When you say, ‘I’m only human’—isn’t that what you mean?”
To be human is to be fallible. Being human means not knowing some things. But if Jesus is all that the Church claims him to be—if he was “God incarnate”—how could he be fallible, or ignorant, or limited?
I asked my teenaged friend that question. And she replied, “I guess it’s one of those paradoxes, isn’t it?”
I guess it is. Her point is well taken. If Jesus of Nazareth was a real human being, he would have been as much like us—and as much unlike us—as any other human being. The carpenter’s son would have known the ups and downs of growth and learning, of working out what it means to be human, of how to be in relationship with others. Like all the rest of us, Jesus must have had growing pains. As Luke tells us: “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favour.”
He “increased in wisdom and in years.” In other words, he matured. He grew. During the 30 or so years between his birth and his public ministry, Jesus did not spend his time “running on the spot” like some kind of perfect, spiritual athlete, waiting for the race to begin. No. He spent his time growing up. That was an essential part of the incarnation—of true God becoming truly human.
Do I understand the how of that? Of course not. But faith, it seems to me, is not so much about understanding as it is about embracing mystery. If we ignore the essential humanity of Jesus, we will overlook the profound mystery of the incarnation of God—and we will miss what someone has called “the wonderful brotherliness of Christ.”
The brotherliness of Christ. I think most of us—even in the church—have missed that! Why? I think it’s because the church has not properly celebrated our Lord’s humanity. It’s as if we’ve forgotten that in Jesus, humanity and divinity are intertwined—or “reconciled.” Intertwined. Reconciled. Atoned. Words that point to the mystery of the divine and human Jesus. Today my advice to you is: hold on to the mystery! Better yet, let the mystery hold on to you.
Whatever you do—for goodness sake, don’t let go of the hand of the human Jesus! For only as we grasp the human hand do we feel the grasp of the divine hand; and only in the divine grasp do we discover our own true humanity.
I guess that is another one of those paradoxes.