The Second Sunday after Christmas, Church of the Epiphany, Sherwood

Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them” (Lk. 2:51).

Obscurity and humility: these are the themes of our Gospel today, from Luke, rounding out the twelve days of Christmas with a meditation on the meaning of the season. Obscurity, because we know so little about the life of Jesus between his birth and the beginning of his short public ministry, apart from this story; humility, because what we learn in this story is in keeping with his humble origins and his humiliating death on the cross.

First, obscurity. The story of Jesus’ birth begins in an out of the way corner of the Roman Empire; it starts in a backwater province, in a small town far from the centers of power. Nazareth and Bethlehem hardly featured on the radar screen of Imperial life, yet it was precisely here that God chose to become flesh and to enter human history as one of us. There is a foreshadowing of notoriety in Matthew’s story of the wise men and Herod the king, as the unknown comes to the attention of the influential and powerful, but it’s fleeting as Jesus once again slips out of sight.

So much of Jesus’ life is hidden from us. The Holy Scriptures are silent about the course of his life from his early childhood to his maturity, apart from this exceptional story. This period is sometimes called “the hidden life” of Jesus, in contrast to the public ministry of teaching and healing and miracle working.

The Trappist monk Charles de Foucauld, who spent years living quietly in the Holy Land, obscure and unnoticed, once wrote that there is much that we can learn from Jesus’ hidden life even though we don’t know anything about it. “You will learn that good, great good, infinite, divine good can be done silently, quietly, without words or noise, by a good example” (Meditations of a Hermit, 103). In other words, the silence of the Holy Scriptures about this part of Jesus’ life is entirely in keeping with the nature of the Gospel itself, in that small acts of service done in obscurity can have far reaching consequences.

Remember the text from the Wisdom of Solomon long associated with Christmas Eve, For while all things were in quiet silence, and that night was in the midst of her swift course, thine Almighty word leaped down from heaven out of thy royal throne” (Wis. 18:14-15). It is in the midst of silence that God breaks out, that the Word of God comes among us. Not in the midst of noisy notoriety, not in the hub bub of life, but quietly, without fanfare, when we are not expecting it.

Second, humility. The Gospel stories of the Nativity emphasize this over and over again. In St. Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is laid in a manger and has a humble beginning to his life. His birth is greeted only by shepherds, the roughest of humble folk. As his ministry unfolds the theme of humility sounds again and again. He enters Jerusalem on an ass, and he’s crucified between two thieves. Humility and humiliation shine forth in his ministry from the beginning to the end.

Our Gospel is in keeping with this theme, sounding the same note. “Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them” (Lk. 2:51). Jesus was the one “by whom all things were made,” as it says in the Creed, yet he was willing to be obedient to his parents. Yet should we really be surprised? Remember in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet not my while but yours be done” (Lk. 22:42).

Again, the Trappist Foucauld, commenting on this verse from our Gospel: “It was a life of humility… You took the lowest of the low places. You went down with the, to live their life, the life of the poor working people, living by their labor. Your life, like theirs, was poor, laborious, hard-working… You were subject to them under their authority…” (Meditations, 45).

Our Gospel seems at first to point to the extraordinary qualities of the teen-aged Jesus, sitting with the teachers in the Temple, but it’s really something else again. Jesus’ willingness to live this sort of life, quiet and obscure, humble and obedient, is the most remarkable thing about him in a story that is striking and profound. It’s significance for us is that it is in the midst of our obscurity, our humility, that Jesus Christ takes flesh and is born for us. Our small acts of ministry, of service and obedience, spoken and unspoken, make Christ present and known in our homes, in our workplaces, and in our communities. Our lives are largely hidden like his, but they make all the difference.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee