The Redemption of Childhood

Terry Rowlett, Mary & Child, c. 1999

First Sunday after Christmas

1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26

Psalm 148

Colossians 3:12-17

Luke 2:41-52

Jesus grew up quick. The angels (Luke 2:14) and prophets (2:28-32, 38) have hardly had time to catch their breath after singing the praises of the newborn, and suddenly Jesus is asserting his independence from his earthly parents and demonstrating his spiritual insight to the temple priests (Luke 2:41-52). Anyone who’s paid much attention in Sunday School has had cause to wonder why we hear almost nothing about Jesus’ childhood. 

Luke’s gospel gives us glimpses of Jesus’ life as if we were his great-aunt Elizabeth, swinging by to pinch his cheeks once when he’s 12 (2:42) and another time when he’s 29 (3:23). Indeed the stories Luke tells us occurred right at the time of major milestones in the life of second temple Judaism; a bar mitzva happened at 13, and the age of readiness for the priesthood was 30. But rather than lead us to exclaim about how time flies, our texts for this week offer hints of how we might contemplate the mystery of Jesus’ childhood, and what it might mean for us that our God became not just a man or a baby, but also a child. 

Our psalm calls forth praise not just from all creation (148:1,3,4-10), but especially from the LORD’s household, “the people of Israel who are close to him” (148:14).  And the description has a familial ring, “young men and women alike, old and young together!” (148:12). There is no age whose mouth God’s praise cannot reach. 

We are told that Samuel grows “both in stature and in favor with the LORD and with the people” (I Samuel 2:20). Samuel’s mother makes him a little robe and brings it to him in the temple each year (I Samuel 2:19), resizing it to fit his growth. Picturing this domestic ritual, we remember that a child’s body is a surefire but irregular way of telling time. The growth of childhood is not linear. It comes in fits and starts. The need to clean out the closets and go up a size is sometimes incremental and sometimes pubescent. 

I know that we are to become children of God (Phil 2:14), but too often I imagine myself like Luke’s Jesus, a child of God with no childhood. I expect from myself a change from sinful to spotless with no awkward moments of growth in between. I want good things and I want them all at once. Whether I admit it or not, I imagine that crystalline, preternatural growth is possible, and I am ruthlessly intolerant of shortcomings in myself and in my family and friends. 

Against these pretentions, Paul tells the Colossians that what is fitting (3:12, 14) for Christians is every imaginable kind of forbearance. They are to bear with one another (3:13) in “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (3:12). They are to not deal harshly with one another, but instead recognize one another’s limitations charitably, as if seeing each other as children, just as Paul views the Galatians (Gal 4:19, 27, 31), and the Ephesians (Eph 5:1, 8), and the Philippians (Phil 2:14).  

Our baptism brings us into God’s family. But having become God’s children, our childhood has only begun.  How are we to be patient with ourselves and one another? How do we learn not to scorn the foolish and gangly and halting ways we mature into grace? 

We would do well to follow the example of Mary who meditates on Jesus’ childhood (Luke 2:51-52). We may not know whether the boy Jesus ever built clay birds or cursed snakes as the pseudepigraphal writings tell us, but the truth is that we don’t have to. The fact that Jesus was a child says all that it needs to. 

Saint Gregory of Nazianzus meditates on Jesus’ growth: “He was wrapped in swaddling bands, but at the Resurrection he unloosed the swaddling bands of the grave. He hungered—yet he fed thousands. He was tired—yet he is the rest of the weary and the burdened (Third Theological Oration).” He babbled and grasped after language—yet is the Word of God. He stumbled and struggled to sit up and walk—yet is the principle of all creation. 

Our LORD shunned not the virgin’s womb, nor the cross and its shame. Neither did Christ shun human childhood. On this first Sunday of Christmas, let us remember that our LORD entered into and redeemed this part of our frailty too. The very Wisdom of God “grew in stature and wisdom” (Luke 2:52). Let us not be too proud to grow slowly as children of God, but instead bear with ourselves and with another in love. Let us not think for a moment that we make ourselves grow, but instead rejoice that Christ became part of the human family that we might become part of the family of God. 

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