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Religious Studies, Sketches and Poems

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In the first recorded public prayer of the Apostles after the resurrection of our Lord he is called "Thy Holy Child Jesus."

The expression is a very beautiful one if we couple it with the Master's declaration that the greatest in the kingdom of heaven is the most like a little child, and that to become as a little child is the first step toward fitness for the knowledge of spiritual things.

There has been in this world one rare flower of Paradise, – a holy childhood growing up gradually into a holy manhood, and always retaining in mature life the precious, unstained memories of perfect innocence. The family at Nazareth was evidently a secluded one. Persons of such an elevated style of thought as Joseph and Mary, conscious of so solemn a destiny and guarding with awe the treasure and hope of a world, must have been so altogether different from the ordinary peasants of Nazareth that there could have been little more than an external acquaintance between them. They were undoubtedly loving, gentle, and tender to every one, full of sympathy for trouble and of kind offices in sickness, but they carried within their hearts a treasury of thoughts, emotions, and hopes, which could not be perceived by those whose spiritual eyes had never been opened. It is quite evident from the surprise that the Nazarenes manifested when Christ delivered his first sermon among them that they had never seen anything unusual in the family, and that Christ himself had been living among them only as the carpenter's son. This case is not peculiar. The great artist or poet often grows to manhood without one of his townspeople suspecting who he is, and what world he lives in. Milton or Raphael might so have grown up unknown in a town of obscure fishermen.

The apocryphal gospels have busied themselves in inventing legends of this child-life of Jesus. Nothing so much shows the difference between the false and the true as these apocryphal gospels compared with the real. Jesus is represented there as a miraculous child, using supernatural power for display among his schoolmates and for the gratification of childish piques and resentments.

The true gospel gives but one incident of the child-life of Jesus, and that just at the time when childhood is verging into youth; for the rest, we are left to conjecture.

We are told that his infancy was passed in the land of Egypt. Jesus was the flower of his nation, – he was the blossom of its history, – and therefore it seemed befitting that his cradle should be where was the cradle of his great forerunner, Moses, on the banks of the Nile. The shadows of the Pyramids, built by the labors of his ancestors, were across the land of his childhood, and the great story of their oppression and deliverance must have filled the thoughts and words of his parents. So imbued was the Jewish mind with the habit of seeing in everything in their history the prophecy and type of the great Fulfiller, that St. Matthew speaks of this exile in Egypt as having occurred that the type might find completeness, and that Israel, in the person of its Head and Representative, might a second time be called out of Egypt: —

"That it might be fulfilled that was spoken of the Lord by the prophet,

"Out of Egypt have I called my son."

We do not know with any definiteness the length of this sojourn in Egypt, nor how much impression the weird and solemn scenery and architecture of Egypt may have made upon the susceptible mind of the child; but to the parents it must have powerfully and vividly recalled all that ancient and prophetic literature which in every step pointed to their wonderful son. The earliest instructions of Jesus must have been in this history and literature of his own nation – a literature unique, poetic, and sublime. But we have no tidings of him till that time in his history when, according to the customs of his people, he was of age to go up to the great national festival at Jerusalem.

The young Jewish boy was instructed all the earlier years of his life in view of this great decisive step, which, like confirmation in the Christian Church, ranked him as a fully admitted member of the house of Israel. It was customary to travel to Jerusalem in large companies or caravans, beguiling the way with hymns of rejoicing as they drew nigh to the holy city. Jesus, probably, was one of many boys who for the first time were going up to their great national festival.

One incident only of this journey is given, but that a very striking one. After the feast was over, when the caravan was returning, they passed a day's journey on their way without perceiving that the child was not among the travelers. This – in a large company of kinsfolk and acquaintance, and where Jesus might have been, as he always afterward seemed to be, a great personal favorite – was quite possible. His parents, trusting him wholly, and feeling that he was happy among friends, gave themselves no care till the time of the evening encampment. Then, discovering their loss, they immediately retraced their steps the next day to Jerusalem, inquiring for him vainly among their acquaintances. They at last turned their steps toward the outer courts of the temple, where was the school of the learned Rabbins who explained the law of God. There, seated at their feet, eager and earnest, asking them questions and hearing their answers, the child Jesus had awakened to a new and deeper life, and become so absorbed as to forget time, place, friends, and everything else in the desire to understand the Holy Word.

It is a blot upon this beautiful story to speak of Jesus as "disputing" with the teachers of his nation, or setting himself up to instruct them. His position was that of a learner; we are not told that he asserted anything, but that he listened and asked questions. The questions of a pure child are often the most searching that can be asked; the questions of the holy child Jesus must have penetrated to the very deepest of divine mysteries. Those masterly discussions of the sayings of the Rabbins, which years after appeared in the Sermon on the Mount, may have sprung from seeds thus dropped into the childish mind.

But, while he is thus absorbed and eager, his soul burning with newly kindled enthusiasm, suddenly his parents, agitated and distressed, lay hold on him with tender reproach: "Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? Behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing."

Jesus answers, as he so often did in after life, as speaking almost unconsciously out of some higher sphere, and in higher language than that of earth: "How is it that ye sought me? Did ye not know that I must be about my Father's business?"

It seemed to say, "Why be alarmed? is not this my Father's house; is not this study of his law my proper work; and where should I be but here?"

But immediately it is added, "He went down to Nazareth and was subject to them." Even Christ pleased not himself; the holiest fire, the divinest passion, was made subject to the heavenly order, and immediately he yielded to the father and mother whom God had made his guides an implicit obedience.

We have here one glimpse of a consuming ardor, a burning enthusiasm, which lay repressed and hidden for eighteen years more, till the Father called him to speak.

That simple, natural utterance in the child's mouth – "My Father" – shows the secret of the holy peace which kept him happy in waiting. The Father was a serene presence, an intimate and inward joy. In the beautiful solitudes about Nazareth the divine benediction came down upon him: —

"I will be as the dew to Israel:
He shall grow as the lily,
And cast forth his roots as Lebanon."

These two natural symbols seem fittest to portray the elements of that holy childhood which grew to holiest manhood. They give us, as its marked characteristics, the shining purity of the lily and the grand strength and stability of the cedars of Lebanon.



"Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judæa, in the days of Herod the king, behold there came wise men to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him."

Was the Messiah to be the King of the Jews alone? No; he was for the world; he was the Good Shepherd of nations, and declared that he had "other sheep, not of this fold."

It seems to be most striking that, in the poetical and beautiful account of the birth of Jesus, there is record of two distinct classes who come to pay him homage – not only the simple-minded and devout laboring people of the Jews, but also the learned sages of the Gentiles.

There are constant intimations throughout the Old Testament that God's choice of the Jews was no favoritism; that he had not forgotten other races, but was still the God and Father of mankind; and that he chose Israel not to aggrandize one people, but to make that people his gift-bearers to the whole world.

There are distinct evidences in the Old Testament that the coming Saviour was caring for others beside the Jewish race. Witness his gracious promise to the slave Hagar that he would bless her descendants. In the very family line from which Messiah was to be born a loving and lovely Moabite woman was suffered to be introduced as the near ancestress of King David, and the name of the Gentile Ruth stands in the genealogy of Jesus as a sort of intimation that he belonged not to a race but to the world. In a remarkable passage of Isaiah (xliv. 28, xlv. 1, 4, 5) Jehovah, proclaiming his supreme power, declares himself to be He

"That saith of Cyrus —
He is my shepherd,
He shall perform all my pleasure.
Even saying to Jerusalem, Thou shalt be built;
And to the Temple, Thy foundations shall be laid.
Thus saith the Lord to his anointed,
To Cyrus, whose right hand I have holden.

For Jacob my servant's sake,
For Israel mine elect,
I have called thee by my name:
I have surnamed thee, though thou hast not known me.
I am the Lord, and there is none else, there is no God beside me:
I girded thee, though thou hast not known me."

The Babylonian captivity answered other purposes beside the punishment and restoration of the Jewish nation to the worship of the true God. It was a sort of prophetic "Epiphany," in which the Messianic aspirations of the Jews fell outside of their own nation, like sparks of fire on those longings which were common to the human race. Even the Jewish prophet spoke of the Messiah as "The Desire of all Nations."

And this desire and the hope of its fulfillment were burning fervently in the souls of all the best of the Gentile nations; for not among the Jews alone, but among all the main races and peoples of antiquity, have there been prophecies and traditions more or less clear of a Being who should redeem the race of man from the power of evil and bring in an era of peace and love.

The yearning, suffering heart of humanity formed to itself such a conception out of its own sense of need. Poor helpless man felt himself an abandoned child, without a Father, in a scene of warring and contending forces. The mighty, mysterious, terrible God of nature was a being that he could not understand, felt unable to question. Job in his hour of anguish expressed the universal longing: —

"Oh that I knew where I might find him! I would come even to his seat, I would order my cause before him, I would fill my mouth with arguments. Would he plead against me with his great power? Nay, but he would put strength in me."

And again: —

"He is not a man as I am that I should answer him, and that we should come together in judgment. Neither is there any daysman that might lay his hand on both of us."

It was for this Mediator, both divine and human, who should interpret the silence of God to man, who should be his Word to his creatures, that all humanity was sighing. Therefore it was that the first vague promise was a seed of hope, not only in the Jewish race, but in all other nations of the earth.

One of the earliest and most beautiful prophecies of the coming Messiah is from the heathen astrologer, Balaam: —

"Balaam the son of Beor saith,
The man whose eyes are open, saith,
He which heard the word of God
And knew the knowledge of the Most High,
Which saw the vision of the Almighty,
Falling into a trance and having his eyes open:
I shall see Him, but not now.
I shall behold Him, but not nigh.
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