There is a wall-painting in the Shrine Church in Walsingham of the story of the finding in the Temple (Luke 2.40-52), showing Jesus at the seat of learning. A startled teacher on one side and a perplexed Mary and Joseph on the other gaze at this soon-to-be-teenager, as he tells them how it is. Educationists and parents might find some sympathy here.
The feet of Jesus loom large, nearly out of proportion. At the seat of learning, not intended for a boy, the feet almost dangle before you, clean, pure, and innocent.
These feet speak of the energy and dynamism of Christ’s youth. They speak of our God, who, like no other gods, participates in our flesh. This is a God who, when all the world was sleeping in sin, leapt from his heavenly throne to walk on terra firma, living life to perfection. This is the one beyond the material who became perfectly materialistic, and, if Irenaeus is right, through such participation sanctifies all the ages of man.
Most Christian art depicts Christ as an infant or adult, but here we are reminded of his sharing in youth. He enters those hormone-racing years of growth, confusion, and change — too often described by adults who forget as a problem that is too difficult to deal with, and is just to be got through.
Yet Jesus sets those years before us as an adventure to be loved and lived to the full. These are the years that speak of more still to come — years of hidden preparation of a life that has not yet reached its potential or full purpose. Yet, in his case, it was even then being lived with such completeness as not to want for more; for there can be no more to be achieved if one is living in total unity with the Father.
For those of us who believe in a God who has himself inhabited the body and soul of youth, and so given to those years an unimaginable dignity — and offered, by grace, the opportunity for young people to be alive in him — it must be our concern that in recent years the Church has been drained of youth. This concern is not primarily because we want to keep the Church going as an institution, but because there is a battle for the soul of young people going on in our Western world.
We are losing the battle, in part because of our own terrible frailty and timidity, but also because, as never before, we live in a time when the false shepherds of this age, often of global influence, are seducing our young into longings and choices that dehumanise them.
These false shepherds desensitise their souls with secular materialistic ideas, claiming that no truth can be relied on, save the secular world-view, with its idea that there is no eternal life to win. These false shepherds overemphasise stardom and glamour over ordinariness, making money out of the inevitably incoherent and unrealistic dreams of youth.
These false shepherds seduce young people into thinking that freedom comes from having a multiplicity of choices that demand everything except commitment. They make them overly aware and anxious about their sexual identity by either a reductionist understanding of the beauty and purpose of sexual attraction and the body, or an incitement into a consumerist frenzy, playing on their hopes of being noticed, attractive, and accepted.
Such shepherds can easily overwhelm local influences, reducing young people’s understanding of life and themselves. Their understanding becomes thin and restless, and inevitably drains the life from them, if only because it blinds them to the hope of more that the real life of faith offers.
Sadly, as I speak of these dangers for young people, here I am at 53 still at least a bit distracted by the same things, but without the same energy to pursue them.
WE WELCOMED a group of young people recently, wonderfully ordinary 15-year-olds. When I bounced in to greet them with one of my winning smiles, they were seriously underwhelmed. Slouched in chairs normally reserved for our generally elderly but expectant mid-week pilgrims, they seemed a cross between “Yeah, but, no, but, yeah, but” and “Am I bovvered?” The priests who came with them admitted their own nervousness about the visit, and listed the catalogue of -isms and behavioural syndromes from which the members of the group suffered.
Yet something happened while they were here. By the third day, they did not really want to leave. The boy who surprised the priests by volunteering to carry the image of Our Lady around the grounds during the Wednesday procession would not have had this task on his how-to-be-cool list.
The superficially indulgent yet merciless tarmac world of secularism had been replaced, even if only for a few days, by the soft ground for the Lord, which, for all its faults, is this sanctuary. These young people did not have to earn respect or prove anything, and we told them so, lest they were in any doubt.
Our frail but sincere, almost naïve, fraternal, and properly disinterested love and attention was theirs from the moment they arrived, because that is God’s way and we try to live God’s way. This is not an indulgent place. We take sin seriously; but it is a merciful place. They began to believe it.
AS I meditate on Christ in the Temple, he teaches, and so must the Church, that young people’s lives can be — and are in reality — profound, mysterious, and of eternal value. And if, by his incarnation, Christ teaches, and so must the Church teach, that material things are to be reverenced, young people can be encouraged to see beyond these things to the one who brings all things into being, and even look to the day when they will need to let go of them, for a greater life.
Christ teaches, and so must the Church, that true joy is discovered in fighting for the rights of others rather than demanding your own. Christ teaches, and so must the Church teach and demonstrate, that young people’s secret hope for love and acceptance is not misplaced. If the Church must do these things, then we, who claim its privileges, must do so, too.
The Rt Revd Lindsay Urwin OGS is Administrator of the Anglican Shrine at Walsingham. This is an extract from his address at the National Pilgrimage.