Sunday, December 27, 2009

Holy Family

Readings: 1 Samuel 1:20-22, 24-28; 1 John 3:1-2, 21-24; Luke 2:41-52

As many of you undoubtedly know,
Christians in the first five or six centuries
produced a number of gospels
in addition to the four that are in the New Testament.
These gospels, which are almost surely not as old as the canonical Gospels
that the Church accepts as Holy Scripture,
seem to have been composed in many cases
to fill in gaps that were perceived in the Scriptural Gospels,
particularly concerning the birth and childhood of Jesus, or his resurrection.

One of these gospels is known as The Infancy Gospel of Thomas
and is composed of materials written between the second and sixth centuries.
It tells stories of Jesus as a young boy – and an unusual young boy he is, too.
It opens with a story of five-year-old Jesus
playing by a brook on the Sabbath day:
he first gathers the water into pools, simply by commanding it,
and then begins to forms figures of birds out of the clay.
The neighbors, of course, complain to Joseph
that Jesus is engaged in work on the Sabbath.
When Joseph goes and reprimands him, Jesus claps his hands
and the birds come to life and fly away,
silencing, at least temporarily, his critics.
This is a charming story
that seems to be trying to depict God incarnate as a child:
the same God who in the book of Genesis commands the waters
and forms Adam from the clay of the earth
and makes him a living being.

Other stories in The Infancy Gospel of Thomas
sound a more ominous note,
such as the one in which Jesus strikes dead
a boy who inadvertently runs into him.
When the boy’s parents go to Joseph to complain,
Jesus strikes them blind.
Joseph boxes Jesus’ ear, but this does not seem to have much effect:
in the stories that follow Jesus seems as likely to curse and kill the neighbors
as he is to bless and heal them.
Again, what we seem to have here
is an attempt to imagine what God incarnate is like as a child,
only in this case we see the power of God
combined with the impulsiveness and petulance
that sometimes characterizes young children.
Jesus comes across in these stories as some sort of evil child-genius
who terrorizes the town of Nazareth.
While we might appreciate the impulse
that motivated those who composed these tales –
the desire to imagine God incarnate as a child –
in the end what is conveyed
is less the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ,
and something more like one of those movies
in which the demon-possessed child kills off the characters on-by-one.
The events in these stories are, as my son Denis would say,
are not so much miracles as they are “weirdicals.”

The Infancy Gospel of Thomas concludes
with a version of the story from Luke’s Gospel
that is our Gospel reading for today,
which is the only story from the New Testament
that tells us anything about Jesus between his infancy and his baptism.
After the sometimes bizarre tales
that precede it in The Infancy Gospel of Thomas,
it is something of a relief to arrive at this familiar story
that doesn’t involve anything particularly extraordinary.

Indeed, compared to what has come before,
one is struck by just how ordinary the boy Jesus depicted by Luke is.
True, he seems to astonish people with the answers he gives
to the questions of the teachers in the Temple,
but no one gets struck dead or blind;
Jesus doesn’t levitate or speak with a booming heavenly voice;
he seems nothing more than a spiritually precocious child.
He is not, as he comes across in the later imaginings
of The Infancy Gospel of Thomas,
a powerful and capricious deity in human disguise,
like an avatar of Zeus or Apollo.
Rather, he is a fully human being,
who listens and asks questions of his teachers,
who slips away from his parents and causes them great anxiety,
who returns home with them and is obedient to them,
who advances in wisdom and age and favor,
in the same way that any of us grows and develops within a human family.

And yet, within this ordinariness
there is something extraordinary,
something miraculous.
The boy Jesus says to his anxious family,
“Why were you looking for me?
Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
Even at this young age, Jesus knows
that when he is in the Temple he is in his Father’s house;
even at this young age Jesus knows
that he is the Son of the God whom he calls “Abba,” Father.
We might try to imagine what this consciousness was like,
whether the twelve-year-old Jesus could have formulated words
such as “begotten, not created” or “one in being with the Father.”
But in the end our imaginations fail,
as they always fail when it comes to knowing God.
Suffice it to say that Jesus knows himself to be God’s Son
in something like the way we might, from our very infancy,
know ourselves to be loved by our parents.
While the newborn infant “knows” very little –
if we are using the term “know” in the sense
that I know next Tuesday is the 29th
or that Caracas is the capital of Venezuela –
there is a sense in which the infant that is held in its mother’s arms
knows her love more deeply and surely
than any other knowledge it will ever have.
The infant knows this love
as the power that has given and sustains its life.
It cannot know itself without knowing this love,
for this love is the soil in which it is rooted.
Just so, Jesus cannot know himself
without knowing the love of his Father,
which is the eternal source of his identity:
we might say that from the outset
he knows himself to be rooted from all eternity
in the soil of divine love.

But there is a difference between this divine love and our human love.
While we human parents try to love our children to the best of our ability,
we are also keenly aware of the failures of our love:
the limits of our patience and generosity,
the shortness of our tempers,
the poverty of our wisdom.
Jesus, however, knows himself to be rooted in a love that is perfect,
a generosity without limits,
a power that will enable him to face opposition and misunderstanding
and even the failure of the cross,
a love that will carry him through death
into the risen life of the Kingdom of God.
This is the true miracle of the boy Jesus:
not the power to make clay birds fly or strike opponents down,
but the miracle of a human life rooted perfectly
in the eternal love of God,
the miracle of one like us,
who unshakably knows himself to be God’s beloved child.

But the miracle does not stop there.
As our second reading, from the First Letter of John, tells us:
See what love the Father has bestowed on us:
that we may be called the children of God.
And so we are.”
The miracle is that God’s Son has become what we are
so that we might become what he is.
The divine love in which his life is rooted from all eternity
has now, in time, been bestowed upon us.
In the face of misunderstanding and opposition and even death
we can know that we are held in God’s love,
a love that will carry us through
to the risen life of God’s Kingdom.
Tricks with clay birds pale in comparison
to the true miracle of this Christmas season –
that we become by grace what Jesus Christ is by nature:
beloved children of God.