On this feast of the Epiphany that ends the Christmas season, we still have the manger scene up, a very traditional sort of tableau that combines the birth stories we have in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. it’s a powerful symbol of what the gospel writers are trying to tell us about the birth of this unique figure – not just in human existence but in the existence of the cosmos. So we have cosmic elements present in this scene – the stars, the angels – and all of it is focused on the adoration and worship of this baby. We have the shepherds and the wise men, representing the poor and the rich, we have Jews and gentiles – the wise men are foreigners from another country. And it’s not just humans who have come to adore, but the animals as well. So all of creation is gathered around this child to offer worship and homage. Powerful symbolism, but it raises some questions.
One of the things that’s interesting about the gospels is that there is a split in the four of them. Two of the gospels, Matthew and Luke, have a birth story, and the other two don’t. So why would that be?
I think one of the things that the gospel writers are wrestling with is the fact that on the one hand, even from the time of his birth Jesus is revealed to us as this unique, divine figure. But he’s not going to begin his ministry for another thirty years, well into adulthood. So what was he doing in those intervening thirty years? If he was self-aware as a divine figure really from the time of his birth and growing up, then why wasn’t he out there doing stuff?
Now Mark answers that question very simply, because for Mark, Jesus doesn’t realize his nature and his calling until his baptism. And it’s from the point of his baptism by John that there’s a flash of understanding. So presumably he’s been growing, he’s been learning, but it’s not until that point that he realizes that God has called him to a unique purpose. And in the meantime, presumably, he’s been living a fairly ordinary life. There are no stories in the gospels about those intervening years, which probably means nothing spectacular really happened.
Well, for some early Christians that was not a satisfactory understanding. So from pretty early on, we get some writings called “non-canonical,” meaning they didn’t end up in the official collection of New Testament books, for reasons that I think will be obvious in a minute. These are sometimes called the infancy gospels, and they have stories of Jesus as a child – with the assumption that as a child, he has the divine powers that he’s going to reveal later as an adult. For a couple of reasons these stories are problematic.
To use an analogy: one of my favorite superheros in the new superhero pantheon is Spider-Man. And Spider-Man, if you’re not familiar with the Spider-Man story, is a teenage boy who accidentally receives powers that are kind of spider-like, that allow him to go out and be a crusader for justice, etc. There have been a couple of iterations of Spider-Man in the movies, and the most recent one is really my favorite, because it reveals Spider-Man as just an ordinary kid who happens to have these super powers. But given that he’s a teenage boy, things don’t always work out in the best way. In trying to help people and save situations, he misjudges situations, he doesn’t realize what’s really happening, and he creates a lot of havoc. And people actually get ticked off at him.
Something similar happens in the infancy gospels. Because on the one hand there are wonderful stories of Jesus doing good as a young child. So for example there’s a story of a companion of his falling off a roof of a house and dying, and Jesus raises him back to life, and everyone thinks that’s fantastic. There’s a another story when he’s with a companion and the boy cuts his foot with an axe, and Jesus heals him instantly. Well, that’s really cool!
But there are other stories. He has a teacher who’s trying to teach him, and he’s really snarky with the teacher and tells him, “You don’t have anything to teach me. I know everything already.” Which presumably would be true – right? There’s a scene where he’s playing with some boys, and a boy bumps into him accidentally and Jesus gets ticked off and causes him to fall down dead. The boy’s parents are understandably upset, and they go to Jesus’ parents to complain, and Jesus causes the parents of the dead boy to go blind. And the villagers get really upset and go to Mary and Joseph to complain, and Jesus’ parents have the classic response, “There’s nothing we can do with him – he’s out of our control.”
Well, you get a sense of why these stories didn’t end up in the canonical gospels, yes? Because, really, teenage boys – forgive me, teenage boys – don’t always have the judgment and self-control to be able to make wise decisions. Wisdom is something that typically comes with age. (Doesn’t always come, but it’s supposed to.)
So you can see the challenge here: if Jesus really does have these miraculous divine powers as a child, what kind of man would he become? We kind of have a choice: do we want a Jesus, can we identify with a Jesus, who even as a child is aware that he is really very different from everyone else, because he has these miraculous, divine powers. Or do we want a Jesus whose understanding of his mission and of his powers is something that develops gradually over time, and which he finally comes to realize in adulthood.
There’s only one story of Jesus not as an infant and not as an adult. It’s in Luke when Jesus goes to visit the temple at about age twelve, when a Jewish male would become an adult in the congregation. And what Luke says after that scene is that “Jesus grew in stature and wisdom, and in favor with God and people.” I think that’s a nice summary of what we might presume Jesus’ life was like between his birth and his beginning his ministry.
Now for Paul, the idea that Jesus is just a man is really critical. Paul makes a point to call Jesus “born of a woman.” It’s really important to Paul that Jesus is a man, not a god descended to earth, which would be a typical thing in Greek and Roman mythology. But a man, just a man. Paul talks in Philippians about Jesus emptying himself. Yes, he’s the son of God and yet he doesn’t claim that title. Instead he empties himself to experience the fullness of what it means to be human. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews, who uses the language of sacrifice in the temple to talk about Jesus’ mission, says Jesus is a high priest who can sympathize with human weakness because he has experienced human weakness. And that for Paul, and I think for the gospel writers as well, is really critical to understanding who Jesus is. That Jesus is able to redeem our humanity because he has fully experienced our humanity. In poverty, in weakness, in obscurity, in all of the ordinariness of daily life. For years and for years and for years. One of the early Christian writers, Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria, in a famous phrase wrote, in talking about Jesus’s humanity, “What has not been assumed has not been redeemed.” And the word “assumed” meaning here, that unless Jesus takes on true humanity then he cannot redeem our humanity.
So to go back to the Matthew story and the manger scene, and this moment of glory and adoration. Immediately after this scene Matthew wants to emphasize again that Jesus is born as a very vulnerable child into a dangerous and violent world. At the time of his birth under King Herod he is threatened by violence, and he and his parents have to escape and become refugees and go to Egypt and hide, and when they are finally able to return to their homeland they have to go to an obscure village. It’s an acknowledgement that Jesus is the Son of God and yet he is living the life of a human being like the rest of us. I think the Jesus I can identify with is the Jesus who has experienced all of human weakness, all of human poverty and suffering. Who has experienced life in its joy and in its sorrow, in its triumph and its tragedy – and who can therefore redeem me and all human beings.