Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Carpenter

Rational Technology for April 9, 2006

While the canonical Gospels never explicitly mention it, it's commonly agreed that Jesus Christ worked as a carpenter during those thirty quiet years of His hidden life. Children then often took upon the occupations of their fathers, so it would have been likely that Jesus took on the occupation of His foster father Joseph, a carpenter.

Have you ever wondered why it was so? At the time Jesus was born, society had already taken on a rhythm of regularity. The Romans had conquered most of Western civilization, and barring the occasional uprising, there was already an established order in which people plied their trades.

A cursory look at the New Testament gives us the range of occupations available: shepherd, innkeeper, astronomer, soldier, lawyer, scribe, farmer, fisherman, baker, merchant, servant, waiter, doctor, and tentmaker. All these were equally honorable, and yet He was none of these.

So why was Jesus Christ a carpenter? As Someone Whose Life, Death, and Resurrection had already been foretold in scriptures, every single detail would have meaning and nothing would be left to chance. Surely His line of work in that long period between His birth and His public ministry would also have significance to His nature and His destiny. So why, indeed?

When I was younger, I assumed that He chose to be a carpenter because it was a lowly occupation and would be in keeping with His meekness and His humility. But if that was all, weren't there occupations that were equally lowly, if not moreso? If a lowly task were all that were needed, couldn't He just as easily have been a shepherd or a servant?

My answer, believe it or not, came when I was putting together a cabinet with the help of some workmen. There I was, playing at being a carpenter, and as that piece of furniture started taking shape, I felt not a little bit of pride at the results of my work. Wouldn't He have felt a greater satisfaction as He put together a table, a chair, a plow, a boat, or even a house?

So perhaps that's one reason why Jesus Christ was a carpenter. It is in His nature as God to be a creator. Correspondingly, He would take an occupation on earth that would let Him continue to participate in that act of creation.

With this in mind, we now catch an inkling of the extent of self-abnegation that He took upon Himself. Where once He created the universe with but a thought, now He laboriously builds with human tools, wielded by His hands and driven by His muscles.

But surely a carpenter is not the only occupation by which one is able to create? Couldn't He just as equally have been a scribe, or a painter, or a sculptor, and continue to participate in that creative process? Indeed, He might have been, were it not for the fact that a carpenter experiences daily a social dimension that an artist does not.

No carpenter works alone; at the very least, he works with an assistant. Frequently, he works with teams of carpenters, especially if the task is considerable. Writers, painters, and sculptors often work alone. While He knew how to retreat into meditation, I like to think that He preferred to work side by side with others. His delight, after all, was to be with the Sons of Men.

Yet another reason He would have been a carpenter would be the preparation that it accorded Him for His destiny that lay ahead.

Have you ever seen a real carpenter's body? More often than not, a carpenter's frame is wiry yet muscled, with hardly a trace of fat. A carpenter's body is schooled in endurance, both from labor under the hot sun and the consant exertions of sawing, planing, hammering, and grinding. A carpenter's body is strong; so would His Body be.

You'll know it's important if you think about the Passion: a night in anguish and without sleep, dragged from temple to governor's residence to palace to jail, beaten with a whip, slapped and punched and kicked in the face, and crowned with thorns. And after that, He must still contend with the weight of the cross -- how much does it weigh? ten kilos? fifteen? twenty? -- and carry it several kilometers uphill to Golgotha. It's a punishment to wear down a lesser man's endurance, and yet He made it to the top of the hill.

We've been conditioned by modern artists' renditions to think of Jesus as meek and gentle to the point of effeminacy. But the Passion shows us that, no, that is not the case. Jesus is a strong, sturdy man, and that strength and sturdiness owes much to years of training in the carpenter's labors.

One final reason that comes to mind is the totality with which He embraced His destiny. If the prophecies had not already foretold it, that death would have been ironic: a carpenter slain on an instrument that he might have made. But His Death on the cross was foretold, and He in fact knew it. Every day, as He worked on wood, He would have been reminded of it.

Yet He still embraced it, and He did not shirk from it.

In so doing, He glorified it.