Friday, December 22, 2006
The Boy Jesus
Jesus portrayed as the Good Shepherd, c. 250
Back in 1999, Boston University Professor Paula Fredriksen wrote an outstanding, provocative, and fascinating book called Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. In that book she used a superb literary device in order to describe Second Temple Judaism. She opened a chapter on the Temple itself with several pages of a fictional account of Jesus (Yeshua) and his family heading down from Galilee to the Temple in Jerusalem for the Passover Feast. Yeshua is described as a young boy who will be advancing past the Temple's Court of the Women for the first time, proceeding into the inner Temple precincts with Joseph (Yosef) and James (Ya'akov) to actually watch the family's corban sacrifice for the Passover being made.
Although her trajectory and ultimate conclusion about Jesus is quite different from Fredriksen's, the popular author Anne Rice rice has picked up on this same theme and literary device and has presented it in a full book form in her novel Christ the Lord out of Egypt. I'm about halfway through it, and I recommend it highly.
Anne Rice of course, has been well known for her popular novels on vampire themes, and to a lesser degree, for her erotica. In a faith journey that has resulted in her coming back to the Catholic faith of her youth, she has decided to leave those topics behind her. She threw herself into the latest that was available in historical Jesus research in preparation for the book, yet stuck in her faith and intellect to the main elements of The Creed. Rice says:
"In 2002 I made up my mind that I would not write anything that wasn't for Christ"
In the end, Rice seems to consider her new book a gift, both to Christians and to non-Christian fans of her previous work. "This is a book I offer to all Christians," she writes, "to the fundamentalists, to the Roman Catholics, to the most liberal Christians in the hope that my embrace of more conservative doctrines will have some coherence for them in the here and now of the book...
In the book, the young boy Jesus, starting to come of age, struggles with his own sense of power, what he seems to know intuitively, and especially with what his own family members say about him in hushed tones. How you would accept this book of course, comes down to a large degree on whether you hold to a 'High Christology" (Jesus was always self aware, in control, and knew everything he ever needed to know), or whether you hold to a "Low Christology" (which emphasizes the humanity of Jesus, and suggests that he learned, grew, and struggled with certain matters, and had to accept certain things on faith).
Shown below are a couple of excerpts (I hope this isn't illegal or a violation of blog netiquette... If it is, can someone let me know?). In the first, the extended Holy Family has arrived in Jerusalem from Alexandria, and Jesus' uncle Cleopas is giving him some insight into who Mary is, and who Jesus is...
Afterwards, Cleopas wanted to talk to me and made everyone leave us alone. Aunt Mary just made a quitting gesture again and moved away to rest for a moment, and then went to other chores with the clearing away, and Aunt Salome was tending to Little James and the other children. Little Salome was helping with Baby Esther and Little Zoker whom she loved so much.
My mother came near to Cleopas. "Why, what are you going to say?" my mother asked him. She sat down on his left, not very close but close enough. "Why should we go away?" She said this in a kind way but she had something on her mind.
"You go away," he told her. He sounded like he had drunk himself drunk but he hadn't. He had drunk less wine than anybody else. "Jesus, come in so you can hear me if I whisper in your ear."
My mother refused to leave. "Don't you tempt him," my mother said.
"And what do you mean by that?" Cleopas asked. "You think I've come to the Holy City of Jerusalem to tempt him?"
Then he clutched at my arm. His fingers were burning.
"I'm going to tell you something," he said to me. "You remember it. This goes in your heart with the Law, you hear me? When she told me the angel had come, I believed her. The angel had come to her! I believed."
The angel-the angel who'd come in Nazareth. He'd come to her. That was what he'd said on the boat, wasn't it? But what did this mean?
My mother stared at him. His face was wet and his eyes very big. I could feel the fever in him. I could see it. He went on.
"I believed her," he said. "I am her brother, am I not? She was thirteen, betrothed to Joseph, and I tell you, she was never out of the sight of us outside of our house, never could there have been any chance of anyone being with her, you know what I'm saying to you, I mean a man. There was no chance, and I am her brother. Remember, I told you. I believed her." He lay back a little on the clothes bundled behind him. "A virgin child, a child in the service of the Temple of Jerusalem, to weave the great veil, with the other chosen ones, and then home under our eyes."
He shivered. He looked at her. His eyes stayed on her. She turned away, and then moved away. But not very far. She stayed there with her back to us, close to our cousin Elizabeth. Eizabeth was watching Cleopas, and watching me. I didn't know whether she heard him or not.
I didn't move. I looked down at Cleopas. His chest rose and fell with each rattling breath and again he shivered.
My mind was working, collecting every bit of knowledge I had ever learned that could help me make sense of what he had said. It was the mind of a child who had grown up sleeping in a room with men and women in that same room and in other rooms open to it, and sleeping in the open courtyard with the men and women in the heat of summer, and living always close with them, and hearing and seeing many things. My mind was working and working. But I couldn't make sense of all he'd said.
"You remember, what I said to you, that I believed!" he said.
"But you're not really sure, are you?" I whispered. His eyes opened wide and a new expression came over him, as if he was waking from his fever.
"And Joseph isn't either, is he?" I asked in the same whisper. "And that is why he never lies beside her." My words had come ahead of my thoughts. I was as surprised as he was by what I'd said. I felt chilled all over. Prickly all over. But I didn't try to change what I'd said.
He rose up on his elbow, and his face was close to mine.
"Turn it around," he said. He struggled for breath. "He never touches her because he does believe. Don't you see? How could he touch her after such a thing?" He smiled, and then he laughed in that low laugh of his, but no one else heard it. "And you?" he went on. "Must you grow up before you fulfill the prophecies? Yes, you must. And must you be a child first before you are a man? Yes. How else?" His eyes changed as if he stopped seeing things in front of him. Again he struggled for breath. "So it was with King David. Anointed, and then sent back to the flocks, a shepherd boy, wasn't it? Until such time as Saul sent for him. Until such time as the Lord God sent for him! Don't you see, that's what confounds them all! That you must grow up like any other child! And half the time they don't know what to do with you! And yes, I am sure! And have always been sure!"
He fell back again, tired, unable to go on, but his eyes never left me. He smiled and I heard his laughter. "Why do you laugh?" I asked.
He shrugged. "I am still amused," he answered. "Yes, amused. Did I see an angel? No, I did not. Maybe if I had, I wouldn't laugh, but then maybe again I would laugh all the more. My laughter is the way I speak, don't you think? Remember that. Ah, listen to them down in the streets. Over there, over here. They want justice. Vengeance. Did you hear all that? Herod did this. Herod did that. They've stoned Archelaus's soldiers! What does it matter to me now? I would like to breathe without it hurting me for one quarter of an hour!"
His hand came up, groping for me. He touched the back of my head, and I bent down and kissed his wet cheek.
Make this pain go away.
He drew in his breath, and then he appeared to drift and to sleep, and his chest began to rise and fall slowly and easily. I placed my hand on his chest and felt his heart. Strength for this little while. What harm is there in it?
When I moved away, I wanted to go to the edge of the roof. I wanted to cry. What had I done? Maybe nothing. But I didn't think it was nothing. And the things he'd said to me-what did they mean? How was I to understand these things?
I wanted the answers to questions, yes, but these words only made more questions, and my head hurt. I was afraid.
Later on that evening, Mary feels compelled to follow up on what Cleopas said to Jesus...
I couldn't see the stars for the mist. But the sight of all the torches of the city, tumbling uphill and downhill, and above all, the Temple rising like a mountain with its great fluttering torches drove every other thought from ' my mind.
A good feeling came over me, that in the Temple I would pray to understand all these words-not only what my uncle had said to me, but all the other things I had heard.
My mother came back. There was just room near the wall by me for my mother to kneel down and then to sink back on her heels:
The torchlight hit her face as she looked towards the Temple.
"Listen to me," she said.
"I am," I answered. I answered in Greek without thinking.
"What I have to say to you should have waited," she said. She spoke Greek as well.
With the noise in the streets, with the low nighttime talk on the roof, I could still hear her.
"But it can't wait now," she said. "My brother has seen to that. Would that he could suffer in silence. But it's never been his way to do anything in silence. So I say it. And you listen. Don't ask questions of me: Do as Joseph told you in that regard. But listen to what I say." "I am," I said again.
"You're not the child of an angel," she said. I nodded.
She turned towards me. The torchlight was in her eyes.
I said nothing.
"The angel said to me-that the power of the Lord would come over me," she said. "And so the shadow of the Lord came over me-I felt it-and then in time came the stirring of life inside me, and it was you."
I said nothing. She looked down.The noise of the city was gone. The torchlight made her look beautiful to me. Beautiful perhaps as Sarah looked to Pharaoh, beautiful as Rachel to Jacob. My mother was beautiful. Modest, but beautiful, no matter how many veils she wore to hide it, no matter how she bowed her head or blushed.
I wanted to be in her lap, in her arms, but I didn't move. It wasn't right to move or say a word.
"And so it happened," she said, looking up again. "I have never been with a man, not then, not now, nor will I ever. I am consecrated to the Lord."
"You can't understand this ... can you?" she asked. "You can't follow what I'm trying to tell you."
"I do follow," I said. "I do see." Joseph wasn't my father, yes, I knew. I had never called Joseph Father. Yes, he was my father according to the Law, and married to my mother, but he wasn't my father. And she was so like a girl always, and the other women like her older sisters, I knew, yes, I knew. "Anything is possible with the Lord," I said. "The Lord made Adam from the dust. Adam didn't even have a mother. The Lord can make a child with no father." I shrugged.
She shook her head. She wasn't like a girl now, but not like a woman either. She was soft and almost sad. When she spoke again, she didn't sound like herself.
"No matter what anyone ever says to you in Nazareth," she said, "remember what's been said tonight."
"People will say things ...?"
She closed her eyes.
"This is why you didn't want to go back there ... to Nazareth?" I asked.
She gave a deep breath. She put her hand over her mouth. She was amazed. She took a deep breath, and she was gentle:
"You haven't understood what I've said to you!" she whispered. She was hurt. I thought she might cry. "No, Mamma, I do see, I understand," I said at once. I didn't want her to be hurt. "The Lord can do anything."
She was disappointed, but then she looked at me and for my sake, she smiled.
"Mamma," I said. I reached out for her.
My head was pounding with thoughts. The sparrows, Eleazer dead in the street and rising living from the mat, too many other things, things slipping away in my mind, and my mind too full. And all Cleopas's words and what were they? You must grow up like any other child or was it Little David back to the flock until they called him? Don't let her be sad.
"I see. I know," I said to her. I smiled a little smile I never gave to anyone but to her if it was giving. More a little sign than a giving. She had her smile for me. A little thing.
And now, she shook off everything that had gone before, and she reached out for me.
I went up on my knees, and she did too, and she held me tight to her.