The hidden years at Nazareth!
A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley
by Andrew McKearney on 13 January 2019
The gospel story that we’ve just read has been about Christ’s baptism when he was around 30 years old. Last week when we met we heard about the wise men bringing their gifts to the infant Christ when he was just a few days old!
What’s happened in the intervening 30 years?
The only story that we have is of Jesus at the age of 12, left behind for three days in the temple in Jerusalem by his parents. When they turn back to look for him they find him surrounded by the teachers of the law, listening and asking questions.
At the conclusion to that story Luke writes:
‘Then Jesus went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them.’
That’s all we’ve got on those 30 years!
So what are we to make of these ‘hidden years at Nazareth’ as they’re sometimes called? It’s very tempting to ignore them, move on and turn our attention to Jesus’ public ministry beginning with his baptism at the age of 30.
But I want to press the pause button and ask: Do those hidden years at Nazareth have any significance for us?
One of the most intriguing people to reflect on this has been Charles de Foucauld.
Some of us may have heard of him or at least of the Little Brothers and Sisters of Jesus, a religious community that he tried to start. And if we’ve not heard of him or the community then we may have heard of the spiritual writer Carlo Carretto who was a Little Brother of Jesus. And if we’ve not heard of him, then look out for one of his books!
Charles de Foucauld was born in 1858. He became a cavalry officer in the French army, then a Trappist monk, then a servant of the Poor Clares in Nazareth and Jerusalem, then a priest and finally a hermit who lived among and served the Tuareg people in the Algerian mountains on the fringes of the Sahara desert.
What led him to live such an extraordinary life?
Well he believed that all of us are called to imitate Christ. So far so good! There’s nothing unusual about that! We are called to be Christ-like!
But he believed that there are three stages to Christ’s life, and that these three stages mean that there are three different callings that Christians might follow.
The first stage of Jesus’ life that de Foucauld noticed was these hidden years at Nazareth that we know so little about.
During this time Jesus lived an ordinary, obscure life you might say, following the family trade. De Foucauld referred to this time as the ‘Nazareth life’ and he understood it to be a life of contemplation, pondering the things of God, but remaining in contact with your immediate neighbours, fulfilling the daily tasks.
The second stage of Jesus’ life was the period of the temptation in the wilderness. De Foucauld saw this as a time of complete and total withdrawal, a strict contemplative life, living far away from everyone else, removed from everyday life.
And the third stage of Jesus’ life was the time of his public ministry, beginning as we heard today with his baptism. For de Foucauld this was a ministry of preaching and teaching, very much engaging with people with all that that involves.
The astonishing thing is this idea that Jesus’ 30 years at Nazareth can be something that can be imitated! What do we know about them? They are hidden years!
But they inspired this remarkable man to a life of humility, poverty and almost total obscurity!
This is how he writes about his sense of calling:
‘Silently, secretly like Jesus of Nazareth, in obscurity
like him, to pass unknown on the earth, like a traveller
in the night…poorly, laboriously, humbly, gently, with kindness like him…imitating in everything Jesus at Nazareth.’
I find this strangely inspiring!
For most of us, our calling is to remain firmly rooted in the ordinary things of life, family, friends, neighbours and colleagues; and to be there while still touching base with the things of God – Christ’s hidden years at Nazareth affirms this.
And while it may appear that our lives pass unnoticed, nevertheless here too we can learn from Charles de Foucauld.
For many years he wanted to establish a new religious order and wrote a rule for two religious orders – the Little Brothers and the Little Sisters of Jesus. However De Foucauld did not attract a single person to join him during his lifetime! For at least another 15 years after his death it seemed that his life had been pointless.
Yet today there are about 1,600 Little Brothers and Little Sisters of Jesus who live in small communities all over the world in humble service to the poor, and they draw directly on the spirituality of this man who became a Christian martyr; because even though he was trusted by the Tuareg he ended up assassinated by them in 1916.
So De Foucauld invites us to trust that any serious attempt to live the Christian life, however small, humble and obscure it may seem, is fruitful – in the same way as those hidden years at Nazareth were fruitful in forming Christ and his future ministry!
There are a few prayers that have come to be associated with Charles de Foucauld, perhaps the most well known is this ‘Prayer of Abandonment’.
My Father, I abandon myself to you.
Do with me as you will.
Whatever you may do with me, I thank you.
I am prepared for anything.
I accept everything,
provided your will is fulfilled in me
and in all creatures.
I ask for nothing more, my God.
I place my soul in your hands.
I give it to you, my God,
with all the love of my heart, because I love you.
And for me it is a necessity of love,
this gift of myself, this placing of myself in your hands without reserve in boundless confidence,
because you are my Father.
Perhaps at his baptism, Christ had a similar prayer on his mind and heart!