Happy Boxing Day, everyone! Christmas is OVER. It used to be that Christmas Day heralded the beginning of the twelve days of Christmas — or, Christmastide, if you prefer — leading to the arrival of the magi for Epiphany. At the very least, the eight days following Christmas held special attention, until the naming of the child at circumcision. Funny to think he wasn’t Jesus until eight days after Christmas (Luke 2:21), but for us “moderns,” this Christmas is history. Driving through town, decorations have already been stripped. The radio station that’s been blasting non-stop Christmas music is back to classic rock. We’re having forty+ degree temperatures, so not one possible vestige of anything resembling a white Christmas exists. My work email kicked back in full force, as people get back to work. My greatest fear, and my basic assumption, is that nothing has changed.
Early in the Christian movement, people became fascinated with the life of the Christ child. Not much snuck into our canonical gospels about the child/boy/adolescent Jesus, but extra-canonical writings are chuck full of stories from the sweet and precious to the macabre and bizarre. Yet, following the birth, we have one report of an escape to Egypt to save the baby from Herod, and a brief snapshot of Jesus as a youth, but what we mostly have is the grown man. We see Jesus at 30, think of him dying young, even though the normal life expectancy for a male in Jesus’ day was only 36. We have Jesus at full maturity, and not much else.
What might it have been like for Mary and Joseph on the morning after? Once the shepherds departed (and long before the magi appeared — did Mary, Joseph and Jesus really stay in the same place for almost two weeks…?) what next? A baby is a baby is a baby — they basically take over everything anyway, but how were Mary and Joseph dealing with the nagging notion that this was no ordinary child? Or did they even worry about this? It could be crippling to be aware that you have full responsibility for the one true Son of God, Messiah. How long would it take for the mundane rhythms and repetitions of parenthood to kick in?
A Catholic friend of mine from childhood used to say that Mary and Joseph became deeply religious people, spending their entire days praying and praising their son. This concept gives me the creeps (which may be why I am not Catholic…). What makes much more sense to me is that Jesus was a normal child, living a normal existence, in a very normal way, without much awareness of who he was or whose he wasn’t. I try to envision “the talk” where Mary and Joseph explain to Jesus where he came from. My friend believed that Jesus was fully aware from infancy, and that he knew his whole life who he was and what his role would be. Once again, I find that hard to believe. How could he function? What child, burdened with such knowledge and responsibility could fit into any kind of normal life and society? The easy answer is “this is Jesus we are talking about,” but I challenge whether we speak of Jesus who lived or the idealized, mythologized Jesus we have created through the centuries.
Jesus had to grow up. He had to function in a real community. He had to learn to relate. If we give the child Jesus the adult awareness and divine self-knowledge, then we rob the humanity of Jesus any meaning. The more we believe Jesus was nothing like us, the less amazing becomes the whole story. We can simply read ahead a chapter and skip thirty years, but from Christmas Day, Mary, Joseph and Jesus had to live lives in real time, and in real space. The odds against any rural born infant thriving in society was slim — infant mortality was high (hence the delay in naming for eight days) and survival was regularly hand-to-mouth. Symbolic gifts of the magi aside, a poor, young family (whether far from home or not, running as fugitives or not) set out into a world where almost everything was stacked against them.
I heard a story on the news this morning of a husband, wife and baby found dead in their apartment in New York. They were asphyxiated by a gas leak, thought to be accidental. The man was 19 years old, working in a woodshop (a carpenter). His wife was 15 years old, an orphan, who gave birth in October to a son. All three were malnourished. They lived together in a one room flat, using a dresser drawer for a crib. The kicker to the story is that they had all been dead for at least two weeks. How could no one miss them for that amount of time? How could they pass from life without notice? They represent a huge population of invisible people in our world today. Poor, uneducated, unremarkable — they live day-to-day, doing the best they can, vulnerable to die without anyone to care. This should not be. Yet, it makes me realize that Mary, Joseph and Jesus fit very cleanly in this invisible population. If the story occurred today, who would notice a poor family trudging along, struggling to get by? Perhaps they would receive the well-intended charity of a person or group, perhaps not. Perhaps they would receive government support and aid, perhaps not. Perhaps they would end up as the young family in New York.
For me, the point is this: yesterday a baby was born who will become King of Kings, Lord or Lords, Prince of Peace, but who is for today, and for the foreseeable future will be, a vulnerable child living in a fragile and impoverished society. There is an enormous wilderness between birth and adulthood. The church today is much more like the vulnerable infant than the self-aware adult. We live in the promise of power, but absent the power. We are growing into a potential, but still with a very long way to go. If we are the body of Christ, we are a small, scrawny, growing body, not the fully formed adult physique of the mature Jesus. After birth comes an intensive and long process of nurture, training, learning, experiencing and experimenting. It takes time to grow and to grow up. Let us see the days to come as our time to mature and become the Christ God needs us to be, but let us be honest that we still have a long road ahead.