The Hidden Years
Preacher: Canon Ralph Godsall, Precentor (2001-2008)
1 January 2006, 10:30 (Naming and Circumcision of Christ)
On Christmas Day, so we are informed, half the population of the country watched ‘Eastenders’, twice. By my reckoning, most of the other half were playing the new general knowledge game ‘Do you want to be a millionaire?’ Between them these two pastimes have captured the imagination of the nation, and if you indulge in neither, or worse still have heard of neither, you are best advised to confess this in select company only!
‘Eastenders’ indulges our thirst for knowing what goes on in other people’s lives. We must know what happens next. ‘Do you want to be a millionaire?’ satisfies us with discoveries about our knowledge. We learn how much trivia we do know. Chillingly we also discover how often we do not know things we think we should.
Knowing. We make assumptions that others know what is obvious to us. Jesus does so in today’s gospel. ‘Did you not know that I was bound to be in my Father’s house?’ But his parents did not understand.
If you were asked who was the person you thought you knew best, I wonder whom you would name. If married, perhaps your husband or wife. If unmarried, maybe your mother or father. In some cases perhaps another relative – a brother, a sister, or a grandparent. No doubt some of us would think of a friend – friendship often has a quality of ‘knowing’ which family relationships obscure. The majority of us would probably name someone whose life history is only partially known to us. With few exceptions we marry people we did not know in childhood. For most of us the first twenty years or so of our husband’s or wife’s life is closed to us, except for a few well-worn family stories and some, usually embarrassing, photographs!
We build up a vague picture of how things were but we can never experience any of this for ourselves. Yet we know how profound an influence childhood and their upbringing at home was upon the person we love. Even in the case of a parent their years before our birth are only marginally recoverable in the same way. And so it is with most friends. Perhaps only with twins is the matter different, but they often go their own way in the end as do our children.
What is true for our knowledge of those we love who are closest to us, is also true of our knowledge of Jesus. Of the thirty three estimated years of his life, the first thirty are an almost closed book to us. Too rarely do we ponder this. There are the birth stories, of course, the focus of Christmas, yet these, in different forms, are told in only two of the four gospels. It is a bit like one aunt remembering something extraordinary about your birth and another aunt giving a slightly different version, whilst the rest of the family know nothing at all! You know something was up but it all seems impenetrable, rather mysterious – a quality we approve of at Christmas.
The only other story from the childhood of Jesus is the one we heard as our gospel reading today. Jesus, aged just twelve, is in the Temple at Jerusalem, asking the doctors of the law a torrent of difficult questions. He gets so carried away that he apparently forgets that his parents have set off home a day earlier! A human drama, if ever there was one, worthy of the pages of a tabloid newspaper! Worried parents, a search, a precocious child – all these ingredients are there. It is very believable – no wonder it was remembered. But of the rest of the early life of Jesus we know nothing.
There must have been events, of course. Jesus grew up in a family home. It is a reasonable conjecture that he helped his father as a carpenter, though there is no scriptural evidence for it. So strong was that conjecture in the diocese of Peterborough that a parish church has been dedicated in that diocese to Christ the Carpenter – it is, I think, unique in the Church of England!
We may assume Jesus knew family anniversaries, local festivities, the celebration of Passover, the birth of new relatives – all the usual round of family life. Yet all these things remain obscure, hidden from our view – rather like the unknown parts of the lives of other people we love and believe we know well. As with those closest to us we must take the life history of Jesus on trust. His home and background and early life must have had a profound impact upon his later ministry but is beyond our capacity to analyse. Like so much we must simply accept it for the unknown quantity it is.
One thing, though, is worth noticing. Jesus, it seems, did nothing to record his thoughts and life events for posterity. What a contrast between him and the celebrities of our own generation whose fascination with themselves has spawned a stream of autobiographies this Christmas. No, Jesus shows us by his own example that the quiet, unnoticed life, faithfully fulfilling the demands of home and work, is the doing of God’s will quite as much as the most outstanding achievement. Through that hidden life of stunning ordinariness, God sanctified our own routines. Our lives too are ‘hid with Christ in God’. Few of us will have our histories remembered.
There is so much we do not know – about the lives f those we love, about the world in which we live, about the early life of Jesus, about the God whom we worship here. But the hiddenness of God is a characteristic of his. ‘He was in the world and the world know him not’, writes St John at the beginning of his gospel.
At the beginning of a new year, it is perhaps worth our while reflecting that the knowledge God requires from us is not knowledge about him, but the knowledge that comes through faith in him. He invites us at the turn of the year to give ourselves afresh to him, to trust his love and goodness – come what may! In so doing the fabric of our lives is given new meaning at Christmas.
Marriages which happen only after the partners have gleaned every detail in the life and character of the other are doomed to failure. They lack that trust born out of love that leads to new and surprising discoveries. God, in his wisdom, has given us just enough of himself to recognize him, love him, and pledge ourselves to him in faith. What he has not done is to reveal himself to us in detail. That revelation will take us eternity to discover!