For this service of Lessons and Carols, a service attempting to bridge the gap between the story of Jesus' birth on Christmas Eve, and the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, the following readings were read before this meditation.
And... truth be told... I couldn't get the meditation to download from my email before church, so what is written here is pretty different from my off-the-cuff reflections. All in the life of the preacher, Christmas week. Enjoy!
About three years, ago a good friend, someone I trust and who I’ve known for a long time, pressed a book into my hand, saying, “You’ve got to read this.” It was about Mary Magdalene, and as many of you know I have a real fascination with her. However, a quick glance at the back told me that the book was set in Ireland, where, the author was imagining, Jesus might have spend some time growing up, studying with Druid priests. Honestly, I kind of rolled my eyes and put it on a shelf.
About a week later, another trusted friend, but from a completely different part of my life, pressed another book into my hands, and said, “You’ve got to read this.” It was the second book in that same trilogy. When the universe speaks to me that loudly and insistently, I tend to listen. The books were great. They also introduced me to one theory on the unknown years of Jesus.
The unknown years of Jesus comprise the period between age 12, when he gave his parents such a scare by staying behind in the Temple, and age 30, when the gospel of Luke tells us, he began his public ministry.
This gap in storytelling has perplexed and frustrated Christians these last two thousand years. Karoline Lewis, a preaching professor from St. Paul (Luther Seminary) writes, “We cannot focus on Jesus as a baby and then fast forward to Jesus as Lord as if nothing happened in between.”[i] We know something happened, but what?
Some interesting theories have been put forth. As I’ve already mentioned, one tells us that Jesus traveled to Britain during that time, perhaps to study with the Druids. He is present in some Arthurian legends, one of which has him building a small house where Glastonbury Abbey now stands. William Blake wrote a poem about this notion, which begins,
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England's pleasant pastures seen!
Another theory has Jesus traveling to India. Someone compared the lives of Jesus and Krishna, and found many surprising similarities, including: a virgin birth and the identification of Krishna with Vishnu in a very similar way that Jesus is identified with God. It is said that Krishna is “one with Vishnu” as Jesus is said to be “one with the Father.”
In both cases, the trip to Britain and the trip to India, the source of the idea seems to be that Jesus must have learned the wisdom he displayed somewhere… which is to say, somewhere else, somewhere other than Nazareth, which even the gospels let slip is the tiniest of one-horse towns imaginable.
I think the problem here is not, “Where did he go?” but the fact that we need him to have gone somewhere. We don’t quite trust the incarnation… the idea that Jesus was fully God AND fully human. If God truly came to us in human form, then Jesus had to grow up as children do, to learn and to grow. Jesus was a carpenter—he had to learn that trade, most likely from Joseph his father. And if we know anything about his education it is that his parents raised him to be a son of Jewish law, immersed in scripture.
Those years weren’t lost… they were spent on the fullness of human experience. Having parents, siblings, friends. Eating together around a table. Acquiring skills and knowledge. Loving and being loved.
But by the time he was thirty, he was ready for another kind of work. He felt the breeze and flame of the Holy Spirit fill him, and he found himself following a young and zealous preacher. This is where our story continues, and where what Howard Thurman called the "work of Christmas" begins:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.
~ Howard Thurman
[i] Karoline Lewis, “Divine and Human Favor,” Dear Working Preacher, Working Preacher Website, https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4234.
[The books mentioned in the first part of the meditation are the Maeve Chronicles by Elizabeth Cunningham. Beware: They're real bodice-rippers, and yes, they are about Mary Magdalene and Jesus, as well as a whole host of other things.]