One of this year’s critically acclaimed movies, “Boyhood,” directed by Richard Linklater, traces the life of a young boy and his family from the time he is a 5-year-old kid to the time he starts his freshman year of college as a young man. The movie is unique in that the same actors play the same roles over the 12 years that are covered in the film. In time-lapse fashion, the characters grow and change and age. The little boy at the beginning of the film looks and sounds nothing like the tall fellow at the end. And yet he has the same name, the same eyes, the same soul. As the mother of grown children, I found the boy’s several-hour journey to adulthood very poignant. Our children really do stop being children in the blink of an eye.
During the season of Advent, which is upon us, I think of the sparsely documented boyhood of Jesus of Nazareth. Advent is the time of year when the daily Scripture readings cover the events leading up to the Incarnation, and the subsequent humanity of the baby Jesus. We hear the stories: the angel Gabriel proclaiming the miraculous pregnancy of the young Mary, the gallantry of Joseph, who becomes her husband because of a dream, their perilous trip to Bethlehem resulting in the birth of their son in challenging circumstances, the visits from shepherds and Magi, the presentation of the firstborn son to God, the flight to Egypt to save the baby’s life and the seemingly normal childhood of a boy who is anything but normal.
Like the technique used in the film “Boyhood,” the Gospels provide only snippets of Jesus’ boyhood, vignettes that give us glimpses of his progress from boy to man. The characters are the same, but in between the scenes we are shown there is much that we must fill in with our imaginations. We can assume that the historical Jesus led the typical life of a Jewish boy in Nazareth, and that his family was representative of Jewish families of that time. The Gospel narratives later jump from Jesus as a boy of 12, teaching his elders in the temple at Jerusalem, where his parents find him after being sick with worry at losing him, to the 30-year-old Jesus, embarking on his public ministry amid the turbulent proclamations of John the Baptist. We know nothing of his adolescence, nothing of his maturing from a teenager into a man, aside from Luke’s line that Jesus “increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor” (Lk 2:52).
The boyhood of Jesus is not the most important part of the Gospels. The Gospel of Mark, which is the Bible’s earliest written account of Jesus’s life, death and resurrection, doesn’t even begin its account until Jesus is an adult. The Gospel of John, marching to its own poetic drummer, also skips over the physical birth and boyhood of Jesus. Our historical knowledge of Jesus’s early years comes only from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. But we treasure those holy interwoven details, because in the Incarnation is the profound and lovely meeting of God and humankind, the point at which we know that God is, however briefly, one of us. God knows our struggles and difficulties intimately, because Jesus, the Word, was made flesh and dwelt among us. The stories of the boyhood of Jesus speak to that intimacy with God, which is why we listen to them anew each Advent. Like the baby photo albums from long ago that we parents pull off the shelf from time to time, we Christians periodically reminisce about the humble yet earth-shaking birth of Christ. We know how the story of the Incarnation ends, and so we cherish in our hearts the glorious story’s beginning.