Birds and Two Boys

First preached on July 31st, 2011

There’s a painting by John Everett Millais called “Christ in the House of His Parents.”  In it, Jesus is a little boy, standing in his father’s carpentry shop.   Joseph, behind him, is building a door out of raw, yellow wood.  Jesus has cut his hand on a nail and is holding it out, and a drop of blood has fallen from it and landed on his left foot.  He will, of course, later be crucified by having nails driven through his hands and his feet.  Mary is kneeling beside him, presumably consoling him, but since he is about to kiss her cheek, it’s possible that he is consoling her.  His cousin, John the baptist, is carrying a bowl of water to him, so that he or Mary can wash out Jesus’ wound.  John will, of course, later baptize Jesus in the River Jordan.  Both John and Jesus look like they’re about seven years old.  Jesus looks calm and gentle.  John looks a little worried, and although he’s just a boy, he is already wearing animal skins about his waist.  Millais painted the picture in 1849, and it stirred up some controversy.  Some critics claimed that the child Jesus looked Jewish, which shouldn’t have been surprising, given that Jesus was Jewish.  But the real objection was that people simply weren’t used to seeing domestic, non-miraculous paintings of Jesus.  The floor of the carpentry shop was dirty, and there was nothing going on inside it except work.

Anytime anyone presents a picture of the boyhood of Jesus, or the manhood of Jesus, or the death of Jesus, it stirs up controversy.  People have their own pictures of what Jesus was like, and they prefer to stick to them.  But, despite the controversies, people can’t help presenting images or stories about Jesus.  There’s just too much to know.  His was the most important life.  Shouldn’t we know everything that we can about it?  And when the Gospels leave a part of the story untold, we are drawn, by curiosity, to wonder about what hasn’t been said.

We don’t know much about Jesus’ boyhood.  Luke’s Gospel tells us that he went to the Temple in Jerusalem when he was twelve years old, and then we don’t hear anything more about him until he’s a grown-up, and about to start his active ministry.  There’s a gap between his infancy and that childhood visit to Jerusalem, and then an even larger gap between his tween years and the beginning of his ministry in his early thirties.  That’s a lot of empty space to fill in.  For John the Baptist, it’s even worse.  All we know about John’s childhood is what Luke tells us at the end of the first chapter of his Gospel – “The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly in Israel.”  But just because people didn’t know what happened during the intervening years doesn’t mean that they didn’t wonder, and even come up with some good stories about that time.

One of those good stories is about Jesus when he was four or five years old (depending on whether you’re reading the Infancy Narrative of Thomas or the Pseudo-Gospel of Matthew).  The story is that one day Jesus went out to play in the river.  He sat in the river and made the water run around him, into a series of dykes that led to separate pools.  It flowed out of the rest of the river and sat in these pools, so that Jesus could go down onto the river bottom and scoop up handfuls of good, gooey mud.  He shaped this mud into twelve sparrows, modeling them like you would model clay.  Then of course someone came along who was completely unimpressed by the miracle, and angry that Jesus had broken the rules by making these mud birds on the Sabbath.  Jesus answered this criticism with another miracle.  He threw the birds up into the air and they came to life and flew away.

Now where was John during this time?  John Everett Millais may have been right.  John the Baptist might have grown up in his cousin Jesus’s house.  John’s parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, were quite old when John was born.  In fact, it was a miracle that he was born at all, since Elizabeth was so old that she could no longer have children.  But God made it possible, and Elizabeth got pregnant.  Then, when her relative Mary got pregnant, too, in even more miraculous circumstances, the two women got together and John leapt in his mother’s womb when he felt the prenatal Jesus come near.  He was so excited about getting to be Jesus’s cousin that he was dancing around inside his mother before he was even born.  So one can imagine a set of circumstances in which Zechariah and Elizabeth die of old age, and John goes to live with Uncle Joseph and Aunt Mary.

But this isn’t the most common story that was told, because remember, Luke says that John “was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly in Israel.”  Many people, early and late, imagined that this meant that he was taken to the wilderness right away, and stayed there throughout his entire childhood.  There are many, many paintings of the child John in the wilderness, surrounded by wild animals and dressed in animal skins.  In some of them he’s a toddler with chubby elbows.  In others he’s a lanky youth.  Except for the animals, he is usually alone.  Was he eating locusts and wild honey?  We’re not the only people who are a little grossed out by the idea of eating a locust.  As early as the fourth century, people were trying to fudge this detail.  Perhaps he ate milk and wild honey, but if so, where did the milk come from?  Perhaps he ate grass and wild honey.

He couldn’t have gotten to the wilderness by himself, not when he was a baby, and so a tradition developed that his mother, Elizabeth, took him.  She stayed with him and protected him until she died when he was seven years old.  And when she died, John’s cousin, Jesus, somehow knew of it.  The boy Jesus, then also seven years old, rode on a cloud to where John was, and took the dead Elizabeth up to heaven.  Maybe he knew she was dead because the sparrows told him, the ones that he had made out of mud.  Maybe he knew because he is God, and all things are known to God.  Regardless, whether we are considering Millais’s painting, or a Syrian tract written in the late fourth century, it is clear that Christians throughout time have thought that Jesus and John were somehow in contact with each other, throughout the lengths of their childhoods.

They meet again in the Gospels, when they are both adults.  John baptizes Jesus in the river Jordan.  After that, the Gospels never quite lose track of John.  Jesus teaches and preaches and works his miracles, but we always hear little reports of John.  Jesus’s disciples come to him and ask him to teach them how to pray, because they’ve heard that John taught his disciples how to pray.  In response, Jesus teaches them the Lord’s Prayer.  But what was that prayer that John had taught to his disciples?  Early Christian stories supply an answer: “Holy Father, sanctify me by thy truth, and make me to know the glory of thy greatness, and show me thy son, and fill me with thy spirit, that I may be illuminated by thy knowledge.”  In this telling, John is so focused on Jesus, no matter how far away Jesus is, that his most important prayer is all about his cousin, all about the fact that divinity resides in his cousin, as does the true knowledge of how we should act and what we should be in the world.

Imagine then the devastation when Jesus learned that John was dead.  It happened like this.  King Herod had married his own brother’s wife, and John had dared to criticize him for it.  Angry, Herod locked John up.  And then came the night when Salome, Herod’s wife’s daughter, danced for him, and he was so pleased by her dancing that he offered to give her anything she asked for.  She asked for the head of Saint John the Baptist.

Jesus was teaching in Galilee when he heard of his cousin’s death.  He had gone through a tough time in Nazareth, his own hometown.  Even though he had been teaching and working miracles, the people of Nazareth wouldn’t accept him.  “Is not this the carpenter’s son?  Is not his mother called Mary?” they asked.  They had seen him in his childhood.  They had been unimpressed by it.  They rejected his power and were critical of his message.

And then the news of John’s death came.  His dear cousin, his compatriot, his friend, a person who shared in his faith and engaged, like him, in the work of saving souls, this person whom he loved, was dead.  Violently dead.  Dead at the whim of a girl for the gratification of a king.  Is it any wonder that Jesus wanted to go off by himself.  He wanted to go to a deserted place.  He wanted to go the wilderness that John knew so well, so that he could remember John, and grieve for him.

Only the crowd didn’t let him.  They followed him into the wilderness and they were indifferent to the fact that he was grieving.  Now if it was me, I would be angry at them for this.  I would be angry that they couldn’t respect my need to grieve, that they couldn’t respect the idea that it couldn’t always be about them, that sometimes I need space just to be myself.  I’m sure we’ve all been there.  We’ve had a harrowing day at work or school, we’ve experienced a loss, or are dwelling in our own pain, and someone comes into the room, our child, our younger sibling, our spouse, and they want our attention.  They don’t even notice that we’re tired.  They don’t even notice that we’re sad.  If you’re like me, this makes you angry.  Is it too much to ask that people set their own needs aside, for just a moment, so that I can decompress a little, steady myself, reconcile myself to what has happened and get on with the day?

That would be my response, but it isn’t Jesus’.  Of all the miracles and magical stories that I’ve told you just now, perhaps the most miraculous, the most magical, is that he has compassion on the crowds.  Right in that moment when he’s grieving, he can set his own grief aside and speak to them.  He can function beyond himself, and it’s because he looks at them and understand who they are, where they’re coming from.  He can emphasize with their needs, regardless of his own distress.

Compassion.  Some people say that it’s something that you either have or you don’t.  But I think it’s something that life trains us in.  Every sorrow, every little slight or moment of shame, can be seen as a training in compassion.  We fall ill, and we understand what it means to have an illness.  And when we meet someone with that illness, we can say, yes, I know what it means for your joints to hurt, for it to be hard to breathe, for it to be hard to get out of bed in the morning.  I know what illness is.  We grieve, and when we meet someone who is grieving we say, yes, we understand what it’s like to walk around, grieving, and to see other people happy, and to envy them, and be angry with them for not understanding the depth of our grief.  We lose loved ones, and we see someone who has experienced a recent loss, and we know what it’s like to find our friends and acquaintances being impatient with our loss, wishing we could just get over it.   We are familiar with their awkwardness, with the way that other people want to avoid talking about a loss, avoid acknowledging that grief is there.

Jesus is grieving when the crowds follow him up that hill.  But he doesn’t send them away.  The disciples want to send them away, and perhaps this is compassion on their part.  There’s nothing to eat, and these foolish people will get hungry if they don’t go and find food soon.  But Jesus is too compassionate even for that.  Forget practicalities, he says.  Forget scarcity.  Let’s remember John, my beloved cousin John, with a miracle.  So he takes what the people have, not expecting them to give more than they can.  And he multiplies their gifts, because he understands that they are hungry, and he wants to see them fed.

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