The Abbey is no longer open for public worship, general visiting or private prayer. Meanwhile, the community of Abbey clergy, privately and following guidance given, will sustain the worship of a building that has been a witness to God’s grace and glory for over a thousand years.Find out more
There is so much we do not know...
The Reverend Ralph Godsall Priest Vicar
Sunday, 30th December 2018 at 11.15 AM
Over Christmas, so we are informed, almost half the population of the country has watched ‘EastEnders’, ‘Coronation Street’ or ‘Emmerdale’, several times. By my reckoning the other half has been playing trivia and quiz games. Between them these two pastimes have captured the imagination of the nation, and if you indulge in neither, or worse still have heard of neither, you are best advised to confess this in select company only.
‘EastEnders’, ‘Coronation Street’ and ‘Emmerdale’ indulge our thirst for knowing what goes on in other people’s lives. We must know what happens next. Quiz games satisfy us with discoveries about our own knowledge. We learn how much trivia we do know. Chillingly, we also discover how often we do not know things we think we should.
Knowing. We make assumptions that others know what is obvious to us. Jesus does so in this morning’s gospel. ‘Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ (Luke 2.49) But his parents did not understand.
If you were asked who the person was you thought you knew best, I wonder whom you would name. If married, perhaps your husband or wife. If unmarried, maybe your mother or father. In some cases, perhaps another relative – a brother, sister or grandparents. No doubt some of us would think of a friend – friendship often has a quality of ‘knowing’ which family relationships obscure.
Most of us would probably name someone whose life history is only partially known to us. With few exceptions we marry people whom we did not know in childhood. For most of us the first twenty years or so of our husband’s or wife’s life is closed to us, except for a few well-worn family stories and some, usually embarrassing, photographs.
We build up a vague picture of how things were, but we can never experience any of this for ourselves. Yet we know how profound its influence has been on the person we love. Even in the case of a parent their years before our birth are only marginally recoverable in the same way. And so, it is with most friends. Perhaps only with twins is the matter different but they often go their own way in the end as do our children.
What is true for our knowledge of those we love who are closest to us is also true of our knowledge of Jesus. Of the 33 estimated years of Jesus’ life, the first thirty are an almost closed book to us. Too rarely do we ponder this. There are the birth stories, of course, the focus of Christmas, yet these, in different forms, are told in only two of the four gospels. It is a bit like one aunt remembering something extraordinary about your birth and another aunt giving a slightly different version, whilst the rest of the family know nothing at all. You know something was up, but it all seems impenetrable, rather mysterious – a quality we approve of at Christmas.
The only other story from the youth of Jesus is the one we heard as our gospel today (Luke 2.41-52). Jesus, aged just twelve, is in the Temple at Jerusalem, asking the doctors of the law a torrent of difficult questions. He gets so carried away that he apparently forgets that his parents have set off home a day earlier. A human drama, if ever there was one, worthy of the pages of a tabloid newspaper. Worried parents, a search, a precocious child – all the ingredients are there. It is very believable – no wonder it was remembered. But of the rest of the early life of Jesus we know nothing.
There must have been events, of course. Jesus grew up in a family home. It is a reasonable conjecture that he helped his father as a carpenter, though there is no scriptural evidence for it. We may assume Jesus knew family anniversaries, local festivities, the celebration of Passover, the birth of new relatives – all the usual round of family life. Yet all these things remain obscure, hidden from our view – rather like the unknown parts of the lives of other people we love and believe we know well. As with those closest to us we must take the life history of Jesus on trust. His home and background and early life must have had a profound impact upon his later ministry, but it is beyond our capacity to analyse. Like so much we must simply accept it for the unknown quantity it is.
One thing, though, is worth noticing. Jesus, it seems, did nothing to record his thoughts and life events for posterity. What a contrast between him and the personalities and half-personalities of our own generation whose fascination with themselves spawns a never-ending stream of autobiographies. By contrast, Jesus shows us by his own example that the quiet, unnoticed life, faithfully fulfilling the demands of home and work, is the doing of God’s will quite as much as the most outstanding achievement. Through that hidden life of stunning ordinariness, God sanctified our own routines. Our lives too are ‘hid with Christ in God’. Few of us will have our histories remembered.
There is so much we do not know – about the lives of those we love, about the world in which we live, about the early life of Jesus, about the God whom we worship here. But the hiddenness of God is a characteristic of his. ‘He was in the world… yet the world did not know him’, writes St John in the opening verses of his gospel (John 1.10).
The knowledge God requires from us is not knowledge about him, but the knowledge of Him that comes through faith. He invites us to give ourselves over to Him, to trust His love and goodness. In so doing the fabric of our lives is given new meaning each Christmas and New Year.
Marriages which happen only after the partners have gleaned every detail in the life and character of the other are doomed to failure. They lack the trust born out of love which leads to new discoveries. At Christmas God, in his wisdom, has given us just enough of Himself to recognize him, love him, and pledge ourselves to him in faith. What he has not done is to reveal himself in detail. That revelation will take us eternity to discover.