The life of Jesus of Nazareth teems with irony: the main character in the best-selling book of all time and the subject of arguably more songs than anyone in history, Jesus was and remains a person marked by hiddenness. Hiddenness—a preference for the peripheries and a refusal of the limelight—represents not only how Jesus revealed God, but also what Jesus reveals about God. The kind of God whom Jesus reveals is a God who remains hidden among those whom the world is most likely to overlook.
Hiddenness emerges as a defining characteristic of Jesus’s life from the outset of the Gospel narratives. Luke narrates Jesus’s birth among the overcrowded streets of Bethlehem to parents of little social significance. Not even the sight of a pregnant Mary engenders enough pity from onlookers to find her a suitable room in which to give birth. Jesus’s first bed is thus a manger fit for animal feed. There is, in Luke’s telling, a dramatic break from the hiddenness motif when an angel, surrounded by “the glory of the Lord,” heralds Jesus’s arrival, but this takes place only under cover of night and to a small band of shepherds who occupied the lowest rungs of Palestinian society (Luke 2:9).
Shortly after Jesus’s birth, his family then disappears further from public view in becoming refugees fleeing the threat of violence. Jesus attracted so little attention throughout childhood and into young adulthood that, among the four Gospel accounts, there exists only a single story from this period of his life. For one accustomed to hiddenness, the story of the boy Jesus centers, fittingly, on his slipping out of view of his parents and becoming lost for three days. When Jesus begins his public life, his ordinary provenance serves to undermine his credibility. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’s neighbors discredit him as “the carpenter’s son” and even one of Jesus’ future apostles scoffs when meeting him, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (Mark 6:3, John 1:43).
Even as a public figure who attracted large crowds, Jesus did not overcome his obscurity. Rather, he cultivated and deepened it. His résumé is hardly glittering. He was an unemployed itinerant preacher accused of mental instability and was executed by the state in the most humiliating manner: public crucifixion. And the accomplishments that might have elevated his public stature—healing and curing the sick, exercising power over demonic spirits, conversing with the prophets Moses and Elijah—Jesus often tried to keep concealed (e.g. Mark 1:43, 3:12; Matt 17:9).
After his resurrection from the dead, Jesus could have vindicated himself by presenting himself alive again to those who doubted him. Jesus instead appears, as Peter says, “not to all the people, but to us, the witnesses chosen by God in advance” (Acts 10:41). The evangelists thus portray Jesus, from birth to death, as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of a messiah who would be overlooked: “He had no majestic bearing to catch our eye, no beauty to draw us to him. He was spurned and avoided by men, a man of suffering, knowing pain, Like one from whom you turn your face, spurned, and we held him in no esteem” (Isa 53:2-3).
Not only did Jesus choose hiddenness throughout the circumstances of his birth, life, and death, but Jesus further identified himself for all time with those who remain on the peripheries of society. In the well-known judgment scene in Matthew 25, Jesus says: “whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” Jesus’s humility—but still more so his merciful love—is on vivid display in his remaining hidden among those whose suffering and beauty are too often and too easily overlooked.
Dorothy Day interpreted Matthew 25 with unflinching literalism. Poignantly aware of just how well-hidden Jesus is among those whom Mother Teresa would later call “Christ in distressing disguise,” Dorothy Day could write from the perspective of both the skeptic and the saint:
If we hadn’t got Christ’s own words for it, it would seem raving lunacy to believe that if I offer a bed and food and hospitality to some man or woman or child, I am replaying the part of Lazarus or Martha or Mary, and that my guest is Christ. There is nothing to show it, perhaps. There are no halos already glowing around their heads, at least none that human eyes can see . . . It would be foolish to pretend that it is always easy to remember. If everyone were holy and handsome, with “alter Christus” [another Christ] shining in neon lighting from them, it would be easy to see Christ in everyone.
The “neon lighting” that Dorothy imagines would, of course, be just as unlikely to appear above the heads of her contemporaries living in poverty as it would have been out of character for Jesus to don a halo in the first place. Jesus was hidden during his own life and he remains hidden during ours as well.
I teach an undergraduate theology course with an eight-week summer service immersion. Students in this course serve at a wide range of non-profit organizations where they form relationships with people whose circumstances fit the exact description that Jesus provides in Matthew 25: the hungry and thirsty at soup kitchens, the stranger at refugee resettlement programs, the sick at free health care clinics for uninsured patients, and individuals with criminal records facing barriers to employment and reintegration.
Just as for Dorothy Day, these students have no neon lighting to go by, but instead the dimly lit contours of Jesus’s own hidden life can serve as a guide. In what follows, we will briefly consider how these students are glimpsing the hidden Jesus this summer.
Seeing the Hidden Jesus
Madeline and Maura spend the summer at Casa Teresa in Orange County where they live and work with pregnant mothers as they progress towards financial and emotional independence. For Madeline and Maura, as they hear stories of these women’s resilience and as they hold newborn babies in their arms, this summer could serve as a window through which to see anew Jesus as an unborn child, the son of a perhaps unwed mother. Matthew’s Gospel considerably understates the danger that Mary faced by being pregnant by someone other than the man she was betrothed to. Matthew simply notes that Joseph intended to break off their engagement without publicizing the cause since he was “unwilling to expose her to shame” (Matt 1:19).
Consonant with Mary’s own precarious situation, Jesus from the very outset of his human life assumed vulnerability in its rawest form as a fetus in his mother’s womb. Long before Jesus ever attracted huge crowds by his teaching and healing, long before he was to become synonymous with one of the world’s great religions, Jesus was a fetus. His entire life depended entirely on another person—someone whose own well-being was far from secure—for food, oxygen, and protection. From the first beat of his human heart, Jesus shows that there is no shame in the condition of human vulnerability and dependence.
Theresa, Neil, and Maria Francisca will be working this summer at Hopeprint in Syracuse where they will assist in helping resettled refugees and their children to thrive in their new community. For Theresa, Neil, and Maria Francisca, as they gain a close-up view of the many obstacles facing those making a new home in this country, they might reflect in greater depth on the minimally narrated chapter in Jesus’s early life as a refugee. Due to a government-mandated migration for tax purposes, Joseph and a pregnant Mary left their home and traveled some 80 miles by foot—likely a seven to ten day journey—to be registered in Bethlehem where Jesus was then born.
Jesus’s young life was further disrupted by the despotic King Herod’s order to massacre all male children under the age of two in Bethlehem, prompting the family to flee to Egypt (cf. Matt 2:16). The scriptures give no indication that in Egypt the young family had any relatives, a support network, legal protection, or knowledge of the local language. Oral and written Catholic Coptic tradition in Egypt recount how Joseph, Mary, and Jesus often endured lack of shelter, food, and water. Many of the Christian holy sites throughout Egypt and the iconographic tradition of this period depict, as one scholar notes, “some tribulation overcome by the Holy Family.” Jesus, who follows in the prophetic tradition that calls for the protection of the alien and stranger among us, was himself an uninvited resident in an unfamiliar country.
Serving at the Congregation of Holy Cross’s Andre House in Phoenix, Liam, John, and Luke are extending hospitality to individuals who spend their days and nights on the streets of Phoenix. In the daily Mass and community prayer at Andre House, Liam, John, and Luke will hear reflections on Jesus’s own life, who himself was an itinerant preacher who would have endured hardships similar to those experienced by the homeless and unemployed. Jesus traveled frequently and covered large distances during a time when travel meant exposure to robbers along roadways in isolated areas.
While on one such journey, Jesus offered a rare autobiographical reference about his living circumstances: “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head” (Luke 9:58). While the Scriptural account is indefinite regarding whether or not Jesus possessed a home of his own, what is clear is that Jesus willingly forsook stability for the sake of his messianic calling.
In Columbus, Matthew is working at Clean Turn, a for-profit social enterprise that employs individuals returning to society following incarceration, equipping them with vital skills and experience. Pushing back against a simplistic division between “good” and “bad” people, Clean Turn lifts up the human dignity of individuals with criminal records. Jesus, himself having been wrongly accused and executed by the state, offers enduring proof that the criminal justice system neither assigns nor negates the worth of any individual life.
Koki and Michelle are serving as live-in support staff this summer at L’Arche Noah Sealth in Seattle, which is part of a worldwide ecumenical community made up of core members with differing intellectual and physical abilities. As the terminology of “core members” implies, L’Arche beautifully inverts and redefines who is the “server” who is “the served” as well as what impairment and ability mean. Koki and Michelle, in learning from individuals who themselves may never have been students in a traditional school setting, challenge us to see with new eyes Jesus as a teacher. If we have become accustomed to regarding Jesus as a sage teacher, we are due to be reminded that it was on account of his teaching that Jesus was accused of mental instability.
Mark’s Gospel recounts that even Jesus’s own family suspected him of having a mental break when began his public ministry: “when his relatives heard of this they set out to seize him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind’” (Mark 3:21). While there is no scriptural record of Jesus having what would be today described as developmental disabilities, Jesus, of course, suffered extreme trauma and loss of physical ability during his trial and execution. When Jesus appears to his followers after the Resurrection, his body still bears the wounds of his crucifixion, suggesting that God’s notion of a perfected body differs substantially from what mainstream culture defines as a perfect body.
Jesus knew firsthand what it feels like to be on the margins of society, but we should avoid overstating the case. Jesus was also solidly middle class in other ways. The literacy rate in first-century Palestine was possibly lower than 10%, yet several Gospel accounts suggest Jesus could both read and write, such as when he reads a scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue (Luke 4:16-17) and when he writes on the ground while preventing a woman from being stoned to death (John 8). Despite having spent his early years as a foreigner in Egypt, his family subsequently became well-known and established members of the Jewish community in Nazareth, as is evident by the public response to Jesus at the start of his public life: “Where did this man get such wisdom and mighty deeds? Is he not the carpenter’s son?” (Mt 13:54). And as the son of a carpenter, Jesus likely would have learned the family trade and attained the socioeconomic standing of a skilled craftsman.
In his examination of how Jesus’s social status intersected with his public ministry, scholar Albert Nolan concludes: “the remarkable thing about Jesus was that, although he came from the middle class and had no appreciable disadvantages himself, he mixed socially with the lowest of the low and identified himself with them. He became an outcast by choice.” For Nolan, Jesus presents a model of willingly going to the margins.
The Hidden Jesus Reveals God’s Love
From the perspective of Christian theology, which already claims Jesus is the all-powerful Son of God, far more remarkable than what Nolan calls Jesus’s choice as a member of the middle class to become an outcast, is that Jesus would choose to become a human person at all. Even if Jesus had been the Emperor of Rome or a modern-day president or billionaire mogul, for the Son of God to become a human person meant that he “emptied himself” (cf. Phil 2:6-8). For whatever privilege or status he might have had by virtue of his heavenly Father or his earthly foster father and mother, Jesus consistently sought out the company of the disregarded of his day: lepers, tax collectors, public sinners, Samaritans, women, shepherds, fishermen, and Roman centurions.
In choosing to become a “hidden” person, Jesus illustrates and embodies the logic of God’s own love. Notre Dame faculty emeritus Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez developed the term “the preferential option for the poor” to describe, first of all, God’s own particular care for the poor and marginalized shown throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and in the New Testament. As Gutiérrez explains it, we are called to make our own preferential option for the poor not because the poor are necessarily better than anyone else, or because we as those attempting to help are better than anyone else, but because as Gutiérrez says, “God is good.” Caring for one another, particularly those who experience daily humiliation and marginalization, is a participation in the economy of God’s own love.
The students I am privileged to work with make their own preferential option for the poor as they seek out the company of those who have been disregarded. Collectively, these students witness a rich tapestry of human diversity. This fall, they will return to our campus with stories of being humbled by how little they knew and inspired by the gifts of those they met. They will return liberated by the discovery that their worth is not measured by their GPA in the same way that the worth of those they met is not measured by their contribution to the GDP. These students will return having encountered Jesus in the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick, and imprisoned. To name these experiences as encounters with Jesus is, of course, a faith statement that not all share. But the criteria by which the king in Matthew 25 separates the sheep from the goats suggests that acting can be, at times, of greater consequence than seeing.
But seeing correctly can help us act correctly. Identifying Jesus’s hiddenness as a person centrifugally drawn to the margins can help us to recognize Jesus in the individuals who have been cast to the margins of contemporary society. Recalling Jesus’s hiddenness helps us see more clearly the God whose immense and surprising love Jesus came to reveal.
 Excerpts from the Lectionary for Mass for Use in the Dioceses of the United States of America, second typical edition © 2001, 1998, 1997, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. Used with permission. All rights reserved. No portion of this text may be reproduced by any means without permission in writing from the copyright owner.
 The author expresses gratitude to Jessica Keating for conversations reflecting on the experiences of the pregnant Mary and unborn Jesus.
 The author credits Kevin McCabe for his contributions regarding Jesus’ experiences relating to mental and physical impairment.