Even by the most liberal reckonings of the liturgical calendar, Christmastide has finally passed with the Presentation of Christ in the Temple on February 2, also known as Candlemas. Since the sixteenth century, perhaps because the commemoration of Candlemas is in February, the month of February has been set aside by the Church for devotions to the Holy Family.
The evangelists don’t tell us very much about the life of the Holy Family after their return from Egypt. St. Luke mentions one of their pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the Passover, after which the child Jesus disappeared for three days, sparking a frantic search by his parents (Luke 2:41–52). After that, Luke tells his readers that the Holy Family returned to their home in Nazareth:
And [Jesus] went down with [St. Joseph and the Blessed Mother] and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man.
Christians have traditionally understood this to mean that Jesus lived in Nazareth from the age of twelve until he started his public ministry around age thirty. There are additional hints from the evangelists as to how Jesus spent his time during these “hidden years,” mainly from the reactions of people in his hometown when he became known around Galilee as a wonderworker. St. Matthew and St. Mark both report that the inhabitants of Nazareth were unimpressed because they thought they knew him too well to believe that there was anything special about him:
Coming to his own country [Nazareth], [Jesus] taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished, and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas?” (Matt. 13:54–55).
And on the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue; and many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get all this? What is the wisdom given to him? What mighty works are wrought by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him (Mark 6:1–3).
For centuries, Christians have found deep meaning in contemplating Christ’s hidden years; but by the Middle Ages some writers became dissatisfied with mysteries for which there is no answer. They wanted to know exactly what Jesus was up to in the years before his public ministry. Some of them decided that Jesus must have spent those years traveling to the ends of the known world.
Robert de Boron, a thirteenth-century French poet, linked Christ to Merrie Olde England by postulating that Joseph of Arimathea caught Christ’s blood in the cup used for the Last Supper, and that his descendants then brought the cup—which became known as the Holy Grail—to England, where it remained in obscurity in Avalon until King Arthur and his knights set out in search of it. Robert didn’t suggest that Jesus had actually gone to England himself, but later legends built on the Grail stories until eventually advocates of British Israelism, such as E. Raymond Capt, came to the conclusion that Jesus and St. Paul affirmed the greatness of the British Empire by visiting England.
Capt went even further, declaring that Christ and his apostles set up shop in a Druid temple, which they refashioned into a quasi-Druid church. In Capt’s view, “Christianity is but a Judaized rehash of Paganism, with the astrotheological pagan gods turned into the Jewish Son of God, his disciples and a slew of saints.”
Meanwhile, in other parts of the world, Jesus was said to have spent his teens and twenties communing with Buddhist monks in India or Tibet. One of the first iterations of this theory came from Louis Jacolliot, a nineteenth-century Frenchman working in India. Jacolliot didn’t say that Jesus went to India, exactly, but he believed that Christianity was a mere rehash of older Eastern religions.
It was Russian doctor and journalist Nicolas Notovich who famously claimed to have dug up evidence that Jesus spent his formative years sitting at the feet of Eastern masters in India and Tibet. Even during his lifetime, Notovich’s claimswere disproven, ridiculed, and dismissed as a hoax, but there remains an audience for these tales and later writers have built upon Notovich’s stories.
We might be tempted to think that stories of Jesus’ travels throughout Britain and the East would be appealing to modern Scripture scholars who take a historical-critical approach to Scripture studies, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. Even John Dominic Crossan, the former Catholic priest who thinks the Resurrection of Christ is really just a parable and has speculated that Jesus was probably eaten by wild dogs, has dismissed the idea of the traveling boy Jesus as lacking in historical evidence!
The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms that all that we know of Jesus’ hidden years is what is found in the canonical Gospels, and that the very lack of information about these years offers us a profound mystery to ponder alongside the Blessed Mother:
The finding of Jesus in the temple is the only event that breaks the silence of the Gospels about the hidden years of Jesus. Here Jesus lets us catch a glimpse of the mystery of his total consecration to a mission that flows from his divine sonship: “Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s work?” Mary and Joseph did not understand these words, but they accepted them in faith. Mary “kept all these things in her heart” during the years Jesus remained hidden in the silence of an ordinary life (534).
The Catechism’s link between Jesus’ answer to his parents concerning his whereabouts while they sought him and his remaining “hidden in the silence of an ordinary life” until the start of his public ministry implies that the key to understanding Christ’s hidden years in Nazareth is that he must have been about his Father’s work.
For the three years of his public ministry, his Father’s work required Christ to be a public figure: teaching and working miracles that attested to the truth of his claims. But the hidden years show that Christ also went about his Father’s work by living an ordinary life in Nazareth—obedient to his parents, presumably supporting his mother after Joseph’s death, and growing “in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52) in preparation for the mission that lay ahead.
Lurid tales may be entertaining, but the scant details offered by the Gospels evince the profound truth that God chose to live an ordinary human existence for most of his earthly life, and that our own ordinary lives hold deep meaning when ordered entirely to him.