CHRIST passed through all the stages of human life from infancy to manhood, and represented each in its ideal form, that he might redeem and sanctify them all, and be a perpetual model for imitation. He was the model infant, the model boy, the model youth, and the model man.7 But the weakness, decline, and decrepitude of old age would be incompatible with his character and mission. He died and rose in the full bloom of early manhood, and lives in the hearts of his people in unfading freshness and unbroken vigor for ever.
Let us first glance at the INFANCY and CHILDHOOD of our Saviour. The history of the race commences with the beauty of innocent youth in the garden of Eden, |when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy,| in beholding Adam and Eve created in the image of their Maker, -- the crowning glory of all his wonderful works. So the second Adam, the Redeemer of the fallen race, the Restorer and Perfecter of man, comes first before us in the accounts of the Gospels as a child, born, not in Paradise, it is true, but among the dreary ruins of sin and death; from an humble virgin, in a lowly manger, yet pure and innocent, -- the subject of the praise of angels, and the adoration of men. Even the announcement and expectation of his birth transforms his virgin mother, the bride of the humble carpenter, into an inspired prophetess and poetess; rejuvenates the aged parents of the Baptist in hopeful anticipation of the approaching salvation; and makes the unborn babe leap in Elizabeth's womb, -- the babe who was to prepare the way for his coming. The immortal psalms of Elizabeth, Mary, and Zacharias, combine the irresistible charms of poetry with truth, and are a worthy preparation for the actual appearance of the Christ-child, at the very threshold of the gospel salvation, when the highest poetry was to become reality, and reality to surpass the sublimest ideal of poetry.8 And, when the heavenly child was born, heaven and earth, the shepherds of Bethlehem in the name of Israel longing after salvation, and the wise men from the East as the representatives of heathenism in its dark groping after the |unknown God,| unite in the worship of the infant King and Saviour.
Here we meet, at the very beginning of the earthly history of Christ, that singular combination of humility and grandeur, of simplicity and sublimity, of the human and divine, which characterizes it throughout, and distinguishes it from every other history. He appears ill the world first as a child, as a poor child, in one of the smallest towns of a remote country,9 in one of the lowliest spots of that town, in a stable, in a manger, a helpless fugitive from the wrath of a cruel tyrant, -- thus presenting, at first sight, every stumbling-block to our faith. But, on the other hand, the appearance of the angel; the inspired hymns of Zacharias and Mary; the holy exultation of Elizabeth, Hannah, and Simeon; the prophecies of Scripture; the theological lore of the scribes at Jerusalem; even the dark political suspicion of Herod; the star of Bethlehem; the journey of the magi from the distant East; the dim light of astrology; the significant night-vision of Joseph; and God's providence overruling every event, -- form a glorious array of evidences for the divine origin of the Christ-child; and heaven and earth seem to move around him as their center, which repels whatever is dark and evil, and by the same power attracts what is good and noble. What a contrast! A child in the manger, yet hearing the salvation of the world; a child hated and feared, yet longed for and loved; a child poor and despised, yet honored and adored, -- beset by danger, yet marvelously preserved; a child setting the stars in heaven, the city of Jerusalem, the shepherds of Judea, and the sages of the East, in motion, -- attracting the best elements of the world, and repelling the evil! This contrast, bringing together the most opposite yet not contradictory things, is too deep, too sublime, too significant, to be the invention of a few illiterate fishermen.10
Yet, with all these marks of divinity upon him, the infant Saviour is not represented, either by Matthew or Luke, as an unnatural prodigy, anticipating the maturity of a later age, but as a truly human child, silently lying and smiling on the bosom of his virgin mother; |growing| and |waxing strong in spirit,|11 and therefore subject to the law of regular development, yet differing from all other children by his supernatural conception and perfect freedom from hereditary sin and guilt. He appears in the celestial beauty of unspotted innocence, a veritable flower of paradise. He was |that Holy Thing,| according to the announcement of the angel Gabriel (Luke i.35), admired and loved by all who approached him in a child-like spirit, but exciting the dark suspicion of the tyrant king who represented his future enemies and persecutors.
Who can measure the ennobling, purifying, and cheering influence which proceeds from the contemplation of the Christ-child, at each returning Christmas season, upon the hearts of young and old in every land and nation! The loss of the first estate is richly compensated by the undying innocence of paradise regained.
Of the BOYHOOD of Jesus we know only one fact, recorded by Luke; but it is in perfect keeping with the peculiar charm of his childhood, and foreshadows at the same time the glory of his public life as one uninterrupted service of his heavenly Father.12 When twelve years old, we find him in the temple, in the midst of the Jewish doctors; not teaching and offending them, as in the apocryphal Gospels, by any immodesty or forwardness, but hearing and asking questions: thus actually learning from them, and yet filling them with astonishment at his understanding and answers. There is nothing premature, forced, or unbecoming his age, and yet a degree of wisdom and an intensity of interest in religion which rises far above a purely human youth. |He increased,| we are told, |in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man| (Luke ii.52). He was subject to his parents, and practiced all the virtues of an obedient son; and yet he filled them with a sacred awe as they saw him absorbed in |the things of his Father,|13 and heard him utter, words which they were unable to understand at the time, but which Mary treasured up in her heart as a holy secret, convinced that they must have some deep meaning answering to the mystery of his supernatural conception and birth.
Such an idea of a harmless and faultless heavenly childhood, of a growing, learning, and yet surprisingly wise boyhood, as it meets us in living reality at the portal of the gospel history, never entered the imagination of a biographer, poet, or philosopher, before. On the contrary, as has been justly observed,14 |in all the higher ranges of character, the excellence portrayed is never the simple unfolding of a harmonious and perfect beauty contained in the germ of childhood, but is a character formed by a process of rectification in which many follies are mended and distempers removed; in which confidence is checked by defeat, passion moderated by reason, smartness sobered by experience. Commonly a certain pleasure is taken in showing how the many wayward sallies of the boy are, at length, reduced by discipline to the character of wisdom, justice, and public heroism so much admired. Besides, if any writer, of almost any age, will undertake to: describe, not merely a spotless but a superhuman or celestial childhood, not having the reality before him, he must be somewhat more than human himself if he does not pile together a mass of clumsy exaggerations, and draw and overdraw, till neither heaven nor earth, can find any verisimilitude in the picture.|
This unnatural exaggeration, into which the mythical fancy of man, in its endeavor to produce a superhuman childhood and boyhood, will inevitably fall, is strikingly exhibited in the myth of Hercules, who, while yet a suckling in the cradle, squeezed two monster serpents to death with his tender hands; and still more in the accounts of the apocryphal Gospels on the wonderful performances of the infant Saviour. These apocryphal Gospels are related to the canonical Gospels as a counterfeit to the genuine coin, or as a revolting caricature to the inimitable original; but, by the very contrast, they tend, negatively, to corroborate the truth of the evangelical history. The strange contrast has been frequently urged, especially in the Strauss-controversy, and used as an argument against the mythical theory. While the evangelists expressly reserve the performance of miracles to the age of maturity and public life, and observe a significant silence concerning the parents of Jesus, the pseudo-evangelists fill the infancy and early years of the Saviour and his mother with the strangest prodigies, and make the active intercession of Mary very prominent throughout. According to their representation, even dumb idols, irrational beasts, and senseless trees, bow in adoration before the infant Jesus on his journey to Egypt; and after his return, when yet a boy of five or seven years, he changes balls of clay into flying birds for the idle amusement of his playmates, strikes terror round about him, dries up a stream of water by a mere word, transforms his companions into goats, raises the dead to life, and performs all sorts of miraculous cures through a magical influence which proceeds from the very water in which he was washed, the towels which he used, and the bed on which he slept.15 Here we have the falsehood and absurdity of unnatural fiction; while the New Testament presents to us the truth and beauty of a supernatural yet most real history, which shines out only in brighter colors by the contrast of the mythical shadow.