The Gospels we hear week by week focus on the venerable accomplishments of Jesus as He went about His ministry here on earth. And generally the homilies that follow focus on the message to be gained by these stories in conjunction with the other readings. We are exhorted to imitate this message in our own lives in whatever way we are able.
A personal fault of mine is the tendency to compare my own life to the lives of others, my gifts to their gifts, my strengths to their strengths. Rarely do these self-inflicted comparisons reflect favorably upon me. All the more is this the case when seriously reflecting on the exemplary life of our Lord and Savior. For anyone who shares this fault, I hope that a little perspective I’ve recently gained may be helpful.
Jesus spent three years in his public ministry. Almost the entirety of all four Gospels focus either on these three years or on the events leading up to the nativity. Very little is said of the time between. This, I believe, was a crucial period in Jesus’ life and an important point to consider for everyday Christians. By outwardly living an ordinary life, He prepared Himself for the ministry which forever changed the world.
The only mention of this period, apart from the great mystery of the finding of Jesus in the Temple, comes from two verses in Luke 3 (51-52): “He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart. And Jesus advanced [in] wisdom and age and favor before God and man.”
For thirty years He lived a quiet life close to family and friends, such a life as anyone might have led. But the passage alludes to one difference: Jesus advanced in wisdom and favor before God. How did this come about? While nothing is explicitly stated, it seems safe to assume that He simply lived out the Jewish law, obviously perfectly because He is God, and prayed diligently. Not much has changed in two thousand years, except instead of living the Jewish law we live the law of the Church and draw our strength from Jesus’ presence in the sacraments. If we are praying diligently we are likely progressing.
For those like me who get impatient with their perceived lack of progress, C. S. Lewis offers a valuable insight (book “Mere Christianity”, chapter “Faith”): “When the most important things in our life happen we quite often do not know, at the moment, what is going on. A man does not always say to himself, ‘Hullo! I’m growing up.’ It is often only when he looks back that he realises what has happened and recognises it as what people call ‘growing up’.”
As with Jesus, the changes within us evolve slowly. Because they are spiritual changes, they will not be perceived by anyone save those who have gone through the same changes. This fact is disturbingly clear in the story of Jesus’ homecoming after He was called to His ministry. He had just declared Himself the messiah in the synagogue: “And all spoke highly of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They also asked, ‘Isn’t this the son of Joseph?'” – Luke 4:22.
These people were present as Jesus “advanced in wisdom and age” but they never perceived his spiritual growth and refused to believe anyone so ordinarily familiar to them could be so blessed. After receiving Jesus’ rebuke for not believing, their antipathy was escalated: “They rose up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town had been built, to hurl him down headlong. But he passed through the midst of them and went away” – Luke 4:29-30.
We all have a few characters among our relatives, but how many of us can claim that our extended family tried to throw us off a cliff?
As Jesus Himself was prepared for His ministry, so too was His Church. After He ascended, His apostles gathered themselves in an upper room in Jerusalem: “All these devoted themselves with one accord to prayer, together with some women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers” – Acts 1:14. Little else is said of these days of preparation for Pentecost. But again, this phase of preparation was crucial to God’s explosive transformation of the world which was soon to come.
The majority of us live a quiet life of balancing work and family, with room for little else. Speaking personally, fitting quiet time for prayer into this mix is nearly impossible. However, it seems clear from the examples of Jesus and the Church that any attempt to incorporate prayer into our everyday life will have effects which are mostly undetectable to us but profoundly significant for our spiritual growth. As Lewis indicated, let our focus be not on our progress but on praying and living day by day.