The Search for the Infant Jesus

Superman Baby“When the boy Jesus was five years old he was playing at the crossing of a stream, and he gathered together into pools the running water, and instantly made it clean, and gave his command with a single word.  Having made soft clay he moulded from it twelve sparrows.  And it was the Sabbath when he did these things.  And there were also many other children playing with him.

When a certain Jew saw what Jesus was doing while playing on the Sabbath, he at once went and told his father Joseph, ‘see, your child is at the stream, and he took clay and moulded twelve birds and has profaned the sabbath.’  And when Joseph came to the place and looked, he cried out to him, saying, ‘why do you do on the Sabbath things which it is not lawful to do?’  But Jesus clapped his hands and cried out to the sparrows and said to them, ‘be gone!’  And the [clay] sparrows [came to life and] took flight and went away chirping.

The Jews were amazed when they saw this, and went away and told their leaders what they had seen Jesus do…  And after some time yet another teacher, a good friend of Joseph, said to [Joseph], ‘bring the child to me to the school.  Perhaps I by persuasion can teach him the letters.’…  And [Jesus] went boldly into the school and found a book lying on the lectern and picked it up, but did not read the letters in it; instead he opened his mouth and spoke by the Holy Spirit and taught the law to those that stood around.   And a large crowd assembled and stood there listening to him, wondering at the beauty of his teaching and the fluency of his words, that, although an infant, he made such pronouncements.”

If you are struggling to locate those two stories in your minds, in one of the Gospels of the New Testament in our Bibles then don’t panic, because you will not find them there.  They come instead from a small manuscript called the ‘Infancy Gospel of Thomas’ which was probably written about one hundred years after the death and resurrection of Jesus.  It is one of many books written by the first Christians that floated around the Early Church but that the Church ultimately came to believe to be inaccurate in their portrayal of the life of Jesus, and therefore did not make it into the collection of books which form the New Testament and which we consider to be our Scriptures today.

I remember being amazed when I was first told about the other books that the Early Church read and gathered around in their worship, and which at least some communities believed to be as reliable as the four Gospels that are in our Bibles today.  There are a whole number of other early Gospels which tell stories about the life of Jesus that we do not find in our Bibles.  There are also a series of letters, similar in many ways to our New Testament Epistles, which were read by at least some communities in the Early Church, but which ultimately did not make it into our Scriptures.

When the Church came to finalise the books which they believed to be reliable, and inspired by God, and which should therefore be in what we call the ‘Canon of Scripture’ some books were included, and others were excluded.  And of those that were excluded, some have now been lost for ever, but others survive as manuscripts which provide extraordinary insights into how at least some of the earliest Christians understood the life of Jesus.

The ‘Infancy Gospel of Thomas’, whilst probably being entirely unreliable as a record of the early years of Jesus’ life became popular amongst some early Christians because it offered a response to their thirst for stories about the first years of the life of Jesus.  What was he like when he was a boy?  Was he aware as a child of the ministry that lay ahead of him?  Was his early life punctuated by the same wisdom in teaching, and miraculous signs that were to be the hallmark of his later public ministry?

If we stop and think about it for a moment, it should be no surprise to us that Christians down through the centuries have been curious about the early life of Jesus, and whilst nowadays the almost complete gap that is left in our Bible between Jesus’ birth and the beginning of his public ministry,  is often filled by novels and films that give us a fictional depiction of what may have happened in the first years of his life,  in the Earliest Christian communities stories abounded about his life in the Holy Family with Mary and Joseph, some of which – including the two excerpts which I have just read to you – were considered by at least some Christians to be an authentic account of his early life.

The Infancy Gospel of Thomas championed a view held by some Early Christians that Jesus was never really a normal human being.   That right from his birth he was aware of the ministry to which he had been called, and the miraculous powers that accompanied it.

The reality is that the only glimpse that we get into the life of Jesus and his family during his childhood years comes in the Gospel passage that we have just heard from the Gospel of Luke a few moments ago.  Just as it was for all other boys of twelve, Jesus was taken by his parents to the Temple in Jerusalem to make his Bar Mitzvah, to signify his coming of age and responsibility, as he (like other twelve year old Jewish boys) made a commitment to the Jewish law for himself.  To this day boys of Jesus’ age go through this rite of passage in Jewish households.  But unlike other Jewish boys, Jesus in coming of age remained in the Temple to question and astound the teachers, as his parents returned to their home, mistakenly believing that he was with them.

So was Jesus a normal human being, or was he somehow a different kind of being from the rest of us?  I don’t mind admitting to you that the incarnation (our belief that Jesus was both truly God and truly human) is a great joy and consolation to me, and also a perplexing puzzle, which I cannot pretend to you that I comprehend.  If I was supposed to have come to understand a very slick and tidy answer to all of the questions of what the incarnation means at theological college I was clearly snoozing during that set of lectures.

The good news, of course, is that the Church has struggled with this question through the centuries as well. So we are not alone this Christmas as we stand back and hear the story of the birth of Jesus again, and wonder like the shepherds, and indeed like Mary, as to what it all means.  And indeed as we ponder this childhood encounter in the Temple.

If I was going to frame this struggle in the form of a question for us this Christmas-time, it would be something like this: “Did the baby in the manger cry?” or to extend that a little further, did he do all of the normal things that babies do? —  Did he need burping? Was he in control of those bits of him which fill the nappies of the average baby? Was he able to comprehend what was going on around him? Did he think like a baby, or an adult, or even a god? Did he wake up as soon as his parents dozed off to sleep as babies (in my experience) seem programmed to do?  In short we might ask this Christmastide – was this little baby that we celebrate, a real baby or not? And was this boy in the Temple a real boy or was he something different?  So many questions: my head is starting to spin! These are not new questions: they have been pondered by the Church through the centuries – although they have been asked in a slightly different way in the past.

In Greek mythology (which would have been widely known by some of the first Christians) there were many gods who arrived fully formed, who arrived ready to rule and to do battle.  In Greek legend Athena, the goddess of wisdom, sprang from Zeus’ skull, fully grown and clad in armour.  Athena did not need to live through a period of learning and growing, she arrived already in her full stature.  Some Christians have imagined Jesus, right from his birth to be like this, a sort of little adult in a baby’s body. There are ancient and beautiful visual depictions of Jesus as a new born baby sitting up and blessing the animals which surrounded him in the stable.

Other Christians have imagined Jesus being in the form of a baby, but actually knowing all that there was to know about the world.  It was really a trick. Jesus looked like a baby and smelt like a baby, but he was just pretending because he really knew fully what was going on around him.

Then there are other Christians who have always maintained that we find in the manger on that first Christmas night, a normal healthy new born baby, one who has no control of most of his bodily functions, who is unable to distinguish clearly what is going on around him, who demands the same attention as any new born child – a beautiful baby boy who is utterly helpless, utterly at the mercy of those who care for him, utterly dependent on others in that stable in Palestine many years ago.

Yet at the heart of the good news which is our Christian hope this normal lovely, yet vulnerable baby is somehow God – “the Word made Flesh” as the Gospel of John puts it, “who dwelt amongst us.”  Or as the English bishop David Jenkins affirms in his thirteen word creed: “God is. God is as God is in Jesus. Therefore there is hope.”

We must never forget that the writers of the Gospels new the end of the story before they started writing their text.  And it is because of how the story of Jesus ends – his death, and resurrection and ascension, that they wrote their Gospels at all.  In a very real way everything that they write about him, and which we gather around Sunday by Sunday, is shaped by the knowledge of his resurrection.

The theology of the incarnation is, if we are honest, a struggle for us.  We simply are not able to comprehend clearly what the Church teaches, that Jesus was both at one and the same time fully God and fully human.  Nevertheless, in faith this Christmas-time we celebrate that in Jesus – in this normal little baby, who grows into the stature of a normal boy – that in this Jesus (as amazing and as fantastic as it sounds) we find the commitment of God to us, for all time.

It is because this baby is no more than a baby, and yet is also a bundle of God (in a way that we cannot fully understand), that we are able to celebrate God’s great love for us.  A love that reaches out to us, a love that comes to experience as we experience; to grow as we grow; to be vulnerable as we are vulnerable – as a little baby boy, and as a child growing into manhood.  God’s new beginning in Jesus, signals for us God’s commitment to begin something new in each one of us – that we might be transformed into the person that God lovingly calls us to be.

“God is. God is as God is in Jesus. Therefore there is hope.”