GSC 30 December 2018
If you’re anything like me, there’ll be moments in your teenage years that you’d rather forget and no, I’m not going to tell you any of mine! In our Gospel today, we hear of Jesus going up to Jerusalem when he was twelve years old. In the Gospels it is the last event of our Lord’s life that we know about until His baptism when He was thirty years old so we know nothing about His teenage years. This is a shock to the modern world where celebrities write biographies and memoirs when they’re in the forties with decades of life left to live and in an age where significance is found in all manner of events, many of which non-remarkable.
But it’s worth remembering that not everything could have been recorded and St John is quite clear about this in the last verse of His Gospel: “If every one of the things that Jesus did were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” That is how much our Lord did! And, the Gospels were limited by the way scrolls were produced at the time. They couldn’t be too long. Hence in part why St Luke broke his writings up in to two pieces: the Gospel that bears his name and then the Acts of the Apostles, they would have been on different scrolls.
But we can assume certain things were happening during these hidden years. St Luke tells us that our Lord “grew in wisdom, in stature and in favour with God and men.” We also know Christ was a carpenter and learnt that trade from St Joseph. The tradition of the Church is that St Joseph then died during these years, given that he is not recorded as being around once Christ was in His public ministry aged thirty and older. Our Blessed Lord would have been involved in arranging the funeral rites for his earthly dad.
Because of the absence of detail of these years from when Jesus was twelve to thirty years old, some other traditions arose. One such was that Jesus came to England! This is not seriously believed now but does come up in the hymn Jerusalem, from William Blake’s poem, “And did those feet in ancient times walk upon England’s mountain green?” referring to this folklore that our Lord was brought here by Joseph of Arimathea, who was later to give the Lord his tomb (Matthew 27:57-60). In Glastonbury in Somerset it is believed they visited and there are hawthorn trees which, unusually, flower twice a year. This tree was said to have been planted by Joseph of Arimathea, but was later destroyed by the anti-Christian parliamentarian armies during the Civil War. The coming of our Lord to England has never been given official status by the Church but gives us an example of how people have tried to fill up these hidden eighteen years of Jesus’ life.
But I think it would be far better for us to content to leave them hidden, unknown. This unseen nature God is not only seen in these hidden, adolescent years of our Lord’s life on earth but in two others spheres too:
First, the divinity of God was hidden in Jesus Christ, concealed, we are not quite capable of seeing Him face-to-face in our sinfulness here on earth. When our Lord transfigures up Mount Tabor to three of the disciples the glory which is always Jesus’ is momentarily revealed. St John in his Gospel reflects often that this glory was revealed on the Cross, hence Jesus says in Gethsemane: “Now is the Son of Man glorified” for on the Cross He is to be lifted up so that all may be drawn to Him (John 12:32-33). The Crucifixion seems to be the moment when the Lord’s glory is most hidden amid the blood and betrayal and yet paradoxically it is also the time when it is most evident.
Secondly, often in the Gospels there is a sense in which not everyone is to know who Jesus is. After some of the healing miracles, Jesus tells the crowds “not to tell anyone” (Matthew 9:30); even when St Peter makes his solemn profession: “You are the Messiah,” St Mark records that our Lord “sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about Him” (Mark 8:29-30).
The importance then of hiddenness has certain important consequences for us to bear in mind in the practise of our faith:
1. It can be difficult to follow a hidden Lord. We can feel He is not really with us or we can end up diminishing His greatness with glib phrases like “God is everywhere” and make him an equivalent to dust or air.
2. This hiddenness makes God packagable in some ways. People can all too easily claim He is on their side without any authority for doing so and it can be hard because He is hidden to deny it concretely. This is where the Church comes in, of course: an authority to discern and make judgements with a commissioning to do so by our Lord Himself: “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church … those whose sins you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in Heaven.” (Matthew 16:18, 19) Our first reading from Ecclesiasticus and Paul’s letter to the Colossians talked of obeying earthly authorities to show obedience to the Lord.
3. There is an onus, an emphasis on us seeking, not having it all served up on a dish for us. And this can lead us to be impatient in our spiritual lives and not see the value in the search, in the faithful repetition, the years of committed and regular service. St Theresa of Avila reflected on her first twenty years of being a nun and searching for God and compared it to dropping a bucket constantly in a well and never getting water out of it. Twenty years! But she said there was merit in it, just as there was merit in the Lord’s eighteen years of hidden life, before His public ministry.
4. We all want to be thanked, to be noticed, to be praised. Now when we’re responsible for something and someone helps, it’s quite right for us to thank them and I’m sure we as a Church could be better at that. But conversely when we do things individually or as a group we mustn’t necessarily stand there waiting to be thanked: we don’t do it for the praise but because it’s the right thing to do. It’s alright for our acts of service to be hidden.
So, the very fact of the hidden years have much to encourage us and instruct us on our own faith journey and we might make this prayer of St Ignatius of Loyola our own: “Teach us, good Lord, to serve you as you deserve, to give and not to count the cost … to labour and not to ask for any reward save that of knowing that we do your will.”