For most people right now, we have entered the post-Christmas season, a kind of recovery period from the stress of holiday preparations and the overindulgence of holiday festivities. But in the church we are just at the beginning of the true Christmas season, which lasts 12 days. Today is the third day of Christmas: three French hens, as the song goes, sometimes interpreted as the great theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love, other times thought of as the three Persons of the Trinity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
This year there are two Sundays in the Christmas season, today and next Sunday. And the gospel readings work out so that the two natures that are united in Christ, the nature of God and the human nature, each get a week of focus. Next week the reading is from John 1, the greatest New Testament passage dedicated to Christ’s divinity, to Jesus being God. John 1 is read often at Christmastime; we read it already once on Christmas Eve at the 11:00 service.
This week’s reading, which reinforces the true humanity of Jesus, comes as a little bit more of a surprise. We don’t really think of the story of preteen Jesus, with apparently all the heartburn preteens have given their parents for centuries, as part of the Christmas story. What’s this awkward kid doing in our church services when what we really want to hear about is the baby, the mother, the angels, and the wise men?
Luke is the only gospel writer to give us even a glimpse into the childhood of Jesus beyond his second year. Almost everything we know about Jesus has to do with either his birth or the last three years or so of his life. There is a thirty-year window that is, for us, an almost completely empty void. What did Jesus do in that time? What was he up to? I think it’s one of the great signs of the truth of the gospels that they don’t try to fill in this gap. It’s a hole that the curious and the imaginative would be only too happy to cover over. The gospel writers resist this temptation, and I think we are the better for it.
Was Jesus a carpenter? We don’t really know. Did Jesus have friends before the disciples? Did he play with the neighborhood children? How far did he travel? What happened to Joseph, who never appears in the stories after Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River?
For these questions, and anything else we could think to ask, the only answer we get is from Luke, and it is here, in the final twelve verses of the second chapter. And because of that, our ideas about Jesus’ humanity might be a little thin. In the early church, church leaders had to fight the belief that Jesus only appeared to be a human being, that it was just a show. This was called Docetism, and it was ruled a heresy. Heresy doesn’t mean, “evil, horrible, worst thing imaginable.” It means, “an opinion, something that belongs to an individual or group of individuals and not the church, a wrong opinion.” Yet many of us—even those of us who are very committed to the church and think of ourselves as getting things right most of the time—still harbor ideas and opinions that downplay Jesus’ humanity. And I don’t just mean with respect to silly things, like whether Jesus cried as a baby, or went to the bathroom, or smelled as bad as everyone else in an age when showers were rare. Some of us have trouble with far more important issues, like whether Jesus actually knew every secret of the universe explicitly, or whether he truly suffered pain and hunger and sorrow, or whether he grew like a normal human child.
The story from Luke’s gospel about Jesus in the temple, then, is important for two reasons. First, it shows that Jesus was indeed gifted and aware of a sense of mission and identity from an early age. “Don’t you know that I must be about my Father’s business,” he tells his worried parents in the temple, after they’ve spent days searching for him.
But it also shows that Jesus was, in other ways, a pretty typical preteen boy. He doesn’t go along with the crowd, he makes life difficult for his parents, you have to imagine that some of the teachers in the temple thought he was a little uppity, and he comes very close to disobeying Mary and Joseph, close enough that Luke feels like he needs to tell us that Jesus “was obedient to them” after they returned to Nazareth.
Jesus really is a human being. He is truly, fully human. Only God can save us, but only we need saving. So God became a human being, one of us, so that we who needed saving could be saved by one of our own who also had the full relationship to God that we had broken in our sin.
Along the way from Bethlehem to Nazareth to Jerusalem, Jesus blesses each stage of our life. The Christmas carol “Once in Royal David’s City” tells us that Jesus is “our childhood’s pattern; day by day like us he grew.” And it’s true: Christ does live each stage of life from birth to thirty-some odd years old. And, we believe, he lives each stage perfectly. We can imitate him, follow him at any age, baby, child, youth, or adult, and by doing so grow closer to Christ and more like the holy God whose face Christ’s flesh veils.
More than that, though, Christ touches each phase of life as Emmanuel, God with us. Jesus’ full humanity is God’s most explicit promise that creation is not the problem, that being human is not something awful or something to escape. God does not regret his creation; God embraces us. Having bodies ourselves is not a problem, and we should not seek to escape them. God, after all, runs toward them with unbelievable enthusiasm, so that in Christ God has taken on the flesh that some religions, even some supposedly Christian teachings, tell us is bad, or unlovable, or unworthy.
When I say Jesus blesses each stage of our life, Christ touches each phase of life, what I’m really saying is that God in Christ invites us to love all created bodies as they pass through life—the bodies themselves, inseparable as they are from the full life of the people who they are. We are to love our bodies and the bodies of our neighbors, human bodies and non-human bodies. Because Christ had a body life yours, like mine, why would we despise something Christ loved enough to take for himself?
The Incarnation, the coming into creation of God the Son, could just as well be called “the blessing of the bodies.” How can we bless—love—our bodies this Christmas season and in the year to come? How can we bless—love—the bodies of our neighbors and friends this Christmas season and in the year to come? I look forward to the answers God will provide us, and I hope we will respond with the same faithfulness Christ showed as he passed through this life, blessing, loving, infant, child, youth, and adult bodies beyond all measure.