Happy New Year, everyone!
December 31, 2017
The Holy Family
(Gal. 3: 23-29, 4: 4-7; Luke 2: 22-40)
Our Gospel reading today concludes with some fairly innocuous sounding words: “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.” How many of us imagine Jesus as a toddler, or as a young boy? Would he have had to ask questions? To learn? Certainly so, Jesus was fully human. To be so meant He had to learn. He grew and became strong. He reached maturity. He was not a divine puppet on the human stage, but He was a real human being, born into a family, and raised to maturity. What do we make of it all?
"Jesus is having a moment in literary fiction."
That's what Paula Cocozza, a feature writer for the British newspaper The Guardian said sometime back. She was commenting on the number of recent novels about Jesus. And, don't assume the authors are Christians. Many are nonbelievers. A couple who are Jewish. And some are hard to define in terms of faith.
The word "novel" is important here, for it communicates that these books are fiction, or more precisely, historical fiction, but that means that, while the subject was a real person, the authors exercised artistic license. In fact, you can't avoid using license if your goal is to write about any of the times in Jesus' life that the Gospels don't cover (which are most of them).
In terms of storytelling, our Scripture reading for today, for example, is little more than a vignette from Jesus' infancy -- an important vignette, to be sure -- but a vignette nonetheless. In the next scene, Jesus is 12, and in the one after that, he's a grown man. The very vignette nature of today's reading tends to make us notice how many unreported periods there are in Jesus' history, especially when it concludes with a statement intended to move us quickly over those gaps: "The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.”
Further still, even the records we do have about Jesus from the Gospels leave quite a few holes, as well as numerous questions, about the chronology of reported events. Beginning in the 19th century, there have been at least three scholarly "quests" for the historical Jesus -- with the most recent starting in 1992 -- but none of them brought scholars and historians to a consensus historical portrait of the man from Nazareth.
So these gaps become prime real estate for fiction writers.
The trouble is, we may not like or agree with what the novelists envision Mary's son doing in these periods not covered by the Gospels. For example, Cocozza says that in a book by Colm Tóibín's, Jesus "comes across as an annoying figure with a loud voice and weird clothes who takes up too much pavement space -- a sort of first-century hipster." (Now we understand where the stage play, Jesus Christ, Superstar came from!) In a novel by Deepak Chopra, Jesus spends his teenage and young adult years searching for enlightenment and discovering principles of Eastern philosophy. Some other novels about Jesus portray scenes that seem more in keeping with the Gospel pictures of Him, but even then, the action comes from the writer's imagination, not history.
Some of us who follow Jesus would like to know more about what Jesus did during the so-called silent years of His life. That's not going to happen, but maybe there's a message for us. Mark Twain once said, "It ain't the parts of the Bible that I can't understand that bother me; it is the parts that I do understand.” We might adapt that line of thought to say, "It ain't the missing parts of Jesus' story that bother me; it is the parts that aren't missing."
At least one Christian writer -- Wayne Jackson -- considers the gaps intentional on God's part. Jackson writes, "This silence of the New Testament records, however, represents no accidental breach in the biblical account. The gap is there by design. The New Testament narratives were purposefully constructed to present only such information regarding Jesus as was relevant to the unfolding plan of redemption. What the holy lad did in the carpenter's shop was wholly beyond the scope of divine intention."
Well, maybe. But Jackson does point us away from the gaps and toward what is reported. And in the case of the text before us, what's reported is that two pious Israelites (presumably, steeped in the Holy Scriptures) recognize in the infant Jesus the presence of "the Lord's Messiah.” These two, Simeon and Anna, were noteworthy for their righteousness and devotion to God. When Simeon takes Jesus into his arms, he realizes that he is literally -- literally -- holding God's salvation. When Anna sees Jesus, she knows she is looking at the "redemption of Jerusalem.”
(As a brief side note, it is significant that Luke includes this story of the prophetess. How many women prophets do we recall from the Old Testament? There are often men (Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Isaiah, etc.). Yet, for Luke, not even Simeon is called a prophet. Instead Anna is a prophetess, foreshadowing the quality women enjoy in the ideal Christian life. The book, the Mystical City of God, by Venerable Mary of Agreda, who received a divine revelation about Our Lady Mary’s life, does have a little bit of information of Jesus’s life outside of the Gospels also.)
As some of us may be aware, there are some apocryphal books that speak of Jesus’ childhood, most prominently the Gospel of Thomas. However, these books were never accepted in the canon; and some were not found until recently. Therefore, their reliability of facts has been questioned even amongst those of us who might view them in a more open mind. I will say that the Gospel of Thomas’s view of Jesus’s childhood is interesting however.
So the takeaway for us today is that, before spending a lot of energy on the parts of Jesus' bio that we don't have, we should read ourselves into the parts of Jesus' story that we do have.
We aren't Israelites, but like them, we need to be saved from the things that separate us from God and others. If we can't literally hold salvation in our arms, we can hold it in our hearts. If we aren't looking for the redemption of Jerusalem per se, we're looking for the redemption of the parts of our lives that aren't working. And Jesus, the Bible tells us, is salvation and redemption for us.
But the lesson for ourselves is that the gaps in Jesus' story do leave room for our imagination to work, and the imagination can be a channel through which we interact with the living Christ. St. Ignatius Loyola, of the late medieval period, taught people to use imagination as a means to "enter into the vision of God" -- that is, to see things from God's perspective. He asked people to picture God looking down on our turbulent world and to imagine God's concern for us. Then picture God, he said, intervening by sending Jesus to us.
Another way Loyola advised using imagination is to place ourselves within a story from the Gospels. The Jesuit, David L. Fleming, gives this example: "Jesus is speaking to a blind man at the side of the road. We feel the hot Mediterranean sun beating down. We smell the dust kicked up by the passersby. We feel the itchy clothing we're wearing, the sweat rolling down our brow, a rumble of hunger. We see the desperation in the blind man's face and hear the wail of hope in his words. We note the irritation of the disciples. Above all, we watch Jesus -- the way he walks, his gestures, the look in his eyes, the expression on his face. We hear him speak the words that are recorded in the gospel. We go on to imagine other words he might have spoken and other deeds he might have done."
Fleming goes on to explain that for these exercises of imagination, Loyola "chooses scenes of Jesus acting rather than Jesus teaching or telling parables. He wants us to see Jesus interacting with others, Jesus making decisions, Jesus moving about, Jesus ministering. He doesn't want us to think about Jesus. He wants us to experience him. He wants Jesus to fill our senses. He wants us to meet him."
Fleming adds that imaginative prayer "teaches us things about Jesus that we would not learn through Scripture study or theological reflection. It allows the person of Christ to penetrate into places that the intellect does not touch. It brings Jesus into our hearts. It engages our feelings."
Frankly, I would agree with this view of discerning Christ. After all, I am constantly saying that our church ministers in the example of Jesus. Sometimes, that means taking cues from His actions, inactions, words or even unspoken words to help guide us in our life path.
It reminds me of a popular phrase from a couple of decades ago, but which should still be used today; the WWJD question -- What would Jesus do? In those cases, we may be applying our imagination to Jesus for purposes of deciding a course of action rather than for experiencing him per se, but to reach a decision, we usually have to picture Jesus, not in some Gospel-story setting, but in our setting, and look for Jesus in the gaps.
Likewise, whenever we say we should be more "Christ-like," we are, in effect, advising the use of our imagination for spiritual purposes -- to decide how Jesus would behave wearing our shoes, and then emulate that. And we can ask God to guide our imagination in that endeavor.
We stand here at the end of a year, ready to start the next calendar. What will the year ahead be like? We can't know in advance, but we can imagine already how Jesus will be with us in our ongoing story.
Even in its gaps.
Let us pray.
That the family of the Church will be strengthened, purified, and renewed through the grace of Christ’s Body and Blood. We pray to the Lord. (Lord hear our prayer.)
For those charged with protecting society; that they will build a world in which family life is revered, protected, and promoted. We pray to the Lord.
For the universal respect of all human beings; that the culture of life will transform every human heart and instill in every one an understanding that we are all God’s creatures regardless of our differences. We pray to the Lord.
For blessings on our families; that the love, the unity, and the self-donation of the Holy Family will overflow to all families and make them truly happy. We pray to the Lord.
That families, especially those who suffer, may find in the Birth of Jesus a sign of certain hope. May the message of the Nativity live within them and go before them. We pray to the Lord.
For family members who are alienated or estranged; that the unfailing power of the mercy of Jesus will reunite and reconcile loved ones. We pray to the Lord.
As always, we pray for those who are sick; May the healing Archangel Raphael be at their side during this special time of the Church. We pray to the Lord.
That the New Year which we begin tomorrow will be a prosperous, healthy, safe, and faith filled year for everyone. We pray to the Lord.
Loving Father, bless us with Your love, which is the bond of perfection. Let the peace of Your Christ control the hearts we offer to You with thankful prayer. Here the prayers and the aspirations of all Your faithful servants, and let this coming year be a year of rejoicing with less sadness, sickness, poverty, loneliness, and unemployment. We ask all this Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA