The Hidden Years

Excerpted from

What Jesus Meant

By

For me, the most convincing pictures or sculptures of the Annunciation to Mary show her in a state of panic. Arturo Martini and Dante Gabriel Rossetti show her shrinking off from the angel, looking cornered by him. Lorenzo Lotto shows her turning entirely away from the angel, as if about to run from him. But the most striking images occur in fourteenth-century paintings-by, for instance, Lorenzo Veneziano and the Master of the Cini Madonna-where Mary is made so faint by the angel's words that she sways back and must grab a pillar to keep herself upright.

This reaction is signaled by the gospel of Luke, which says, "She was deeply shaken by what the angel said, and was trying to puzzle out what such a greeting could mean" (Lk 1.29). The angel has to reassure her: "Have no fear, Mary, this is because you have found favor with God." Did she know already how dangerous is such favor? God's chosen people are commonly chosen to suffer. Of Jesus in particular, John Henry Newman wrote: "All who came near him more or less suffered by approaching him, just as if pain and trouble went out of him, as some precious virtue for the good of their souls." Jesus says as much in his ironic description of a Christian happiness: "Happy are you when others revile you, afflict you, bring filthy false charges against you for following me. Take comfort and be glad, since great will be your recompense in heaven. That is how they afflicted the prophets before you" (Mt 5.11-12).

Mary will soon be told what to expect from her divine privilege. When she presents her newborn child in the Temple, she is told by the saintly Jewish elder Simeon, "This very child is marked to be a sign of contradiction, for the downfall or uplifting of many in Israel, while a sword will run through this woman's heart, to lay bare the inner divisions of many a mind" (Lk 2.34-35).

The child himself will say, in his maturity, "Think not I come to impose peace on the earth, I come imposing not peace but a sword" (Mt 10.34). Later generations will justify crusades from such words, but the sword Jesus bears will be used against him and his, not by them. To Peter he says, "Put your sword back in its holder-those taking up the sword die of the sword" (Mt 26.52). The sword he brings is wielded by others-in the first (and immediate) case by the Jewish collaborator with Rome, Herod, who kills children indiscriminately while trying to find the dangerous baby who has quietly infiltrated his realm. From the outset, Jesus is a threat to power.

He begins as a mysterious rumor, one child hidden among the many, who are put at risk by his radical presence among them. He is extraordinary, but at the same time he is indistinguishable from other babies. The angel gives him his name, not leaving that to the discretion of either parent-yet the name Jesus was one of the most common of his time, as the first-century Jewish historian Josephus tells us. It is as if he were called Everyman-or simply the Son of Man. He seems at first the exemplar, or a summary, of all mankind, though that impression will be proved false, since the simple name of Jesus will, as the early Christian hymn says, be favored "over all names, that at the name of Jesus all knees shall bend above the earth, upon the earth, and below the earth, and every tongue shall acknowledge that Jesus is the Lord Christ, to the glory of God the Father" (Phil 2.9-11).

Displaced Person

Jesus is multiply displaced, made peripheral to the important places of the world. He comes from a despised city and region (Jn 1.46). Yet he cannot be allowed a peaceful birth in that backwater. His parents are displaced by decree of an occupying power that rules his people. For the imperial census to be taken, Joseph his father must return to his place of birth. The Jews feared and resented authority when it took to counting them for the better control of their lives. This was true even when their own ruler, David, took a census (2 Sam 24.1-25). Luke indicates that Rome's power is tyrannical when his gospel shows the emperor shuffling the lives of distant people.

Joseph does not even have relatives left in his native town, people with whom he can stay. He seeks shelter in an inn, already crowded with people taken away from their own homes and lives. Because of this influx of strangers, he is turned away. There is no bed left, even for a woman far advanced in pregnancy. She must deliver her child in a barn, where the child is laid in a hay trough. The extrusion from normal surroundings and circumstances is complete. Not only is he born into an oppressed people, and forced out of his parent's city, and excluded from the common shelter-now the oppressed person, the homeless person, the excluded person must become a fugitive, driven farther away from the familiar, the comfortable, into an exile that recalls the wandering of the whole Jewish people. Herod the persecutor takes up the role formerly played by Pharaoh, the men of power trying to stamp out God's chosen instrument-first his People, then his Son. The relationship of Jesus to worldly power is revealed from the very outset of his life. He is the rulers' prey, on the run from them down through the ages.

Young Manhood

In the earliest gospel, that of Mark, Jesus appears out of nowhere, a mature man, to announce that God's reign has arrived. Luke (3.23) says that Jesus was "about thirty" at the time-but that is just the conventional way of saying that he was fully adult. What was Jesus doing in the preceding time, in what have been called his "hidden years"? Luke says that he "grew physically and mentally" (2.52), after giving us a scene that symbolizes this process. The progressive detachment from his family that all adolescents undergo is described at the onset of Jesus' adolescence, the age of twelve, when Jesus leaves his parents without informing them that he is doing so. This occurs in Jerusalem, where his parents have brought him to observe the holy days. He slips away from them in order to "sit with the scholars in the Temple, hearing them and asking them questions" (3.46). He must learn about the revelations to his people.

His unexplained disappearance naturally disconcerts his parents, who have traveled homeward a whole day without realizing that he has left their party. After three frantic days of searching for him, they find him in the Temple, and Mary asks, "How could you do this to us? Can you not see how disturbed your father and I were while we looked for you?" Jesus in effect declares his independence of worldly father and mother by answering, "Why would you look for me? Could you not tell that I must be at my Father's?" (Lk 2.49). But "they did not understand what he was saying" (2.50). He was a mystery in his own home. Other members of his family will be at a similar loss in coping with this disturbing person in their midst. When his public life becomes controversial, "not even his brothers gave him credence" (Jn 7.5). Indeed, "his family tried to take him into custody" (Mk 3.21). After making a stir elsewhere, he tried to return to Nazareth, his native village, but the inhabitants "ganged up to throw him out of town, taking him to the edge of the cliff on which the town was built, with the intention of throwing him over" (Lk 4.29).

The independence Jesus had shown in leaving his parents to haunt the Temple was obviously shown to other members of his family, to the brothers and sisters mentioned in Mt 13.55, to "his brothers James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon" (Mk 6.3). The frequently emphasized hostility he experienced from his own family helps us understand the shocking ease with which Jesus could later say, "If one coming to me does not hate his father and his mother, and his wife and children, and his brothers and sisters-and, for that matter, his own life-he cannot be my follower" (Lk 14.26). For members of his own family, such an attitude was itself hateful. They could not see why he put on airs, went a different way, learned things beyond them, spent time on Hebrew texts that only scholars could deal with, neglecting (no doubt) the family business of cabinetmaking.

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