Many a young mother and father’s aspirations for living a re-incarnation of the Holy Family has washed up on the shores of their child’s second birthday. Something is in the birthday cake that turns them into little monsters—it is the beginning of the “Terrible Twos.” As the child becomes more mobile, the world has opened up before them. With greater access to their surroundings and a constant curiosity, defiance sets in. Lacking adequate language skills to express themselves, they master the art of the dramatic tantrum. Most parents comfort themselves with the idea that it is a normal developmental stage and will soon pass. Some turn to the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph for help and understanding. But can they really understand? They were truly parents of Our Lord and they were truly a family, but did Jesus go through the “Terrible Twos?”
For the first five or six centuries of the Church, the Magisterium had to wrestle with the Person of Christ. There was little question as to His divinity, but how He could also be fully human was something that needed to be hashed out. The fruits of this discussion were borne in the ideas of the Hypostatic Union and the philosophical idea of a Person.
During the Council of Chalcedon (451), the Church declared that the two natures of Christ are joined “in one person and one hypostasis” where hypostasis simply means a single substance. The Church followed with the expression “hypostatic union” to express the belief that in Jesus Christ there are two perfect and real natures, divine and human. The Eternal Son of God took to Himself a true human nature.
From this the Church was led to make the necessary distinction between person and nature. It is necessary at the outset to make two important distinctions. The first is between nature and person. The nature that a rational being has decides what that being is and can do. However it is the person that actually exists and does the action. The nature is part of the person, but does not exist outside the person. The nature may answer the question what, but it is the person that answers the question who.
Recall that because of the Hypostatic Union, Christ has two natures. This means that He has two principles of action; Divine and human. Because He is Divine, He could raise Lazarus from the dead. Because He is human, He asked the woman at the well for a drink to quench His thirst. However, it was always the Divine Second Person of the Trinity that performed these actions.
All of this is necessary because there is a new tendency to do away with the divinity of Christ. In fact in his book on spiritual Christology called Behold the Pierced One , Pope Benedict XVI says that it is ultimately the attempt to cancel out the divinity of Christ that is most damaging to faith today. He says that the linguistic change from the name “Christ” to the personal name “Jesus” in referring to Christ reveals a spiritual process with wide implications. It is an attempt to get behind the Church’s confession of faith and reach the purely historical figure of Jesus.
With this (over) emphasis on Jesus’ humanity, we attempt to apply modern psychology and stages of development to Christ. If He is fully man then He too had to go through a process of growth in human nature. He had to grow physically, He had to learn to speak, and He had to experience things so as to learn new things. All of this is true, but for Christ is means something entirely different. Surely He is “like us in all things but sin.” The problem in our thinking however is that Our Lord’s “but” is much bigger than we initially think.
The “but sin” that the author of the Letter to the Hebrews is referring to is not just personal sin (after all God is incapable of sin, even if He takes on human flesh) but the effects of sin—namely the Fall. With the Fall came a darkening of the intellect (which we call ignorance), a weakening of the will and disintegration in the emotional life (or the heart). This is one of the reasons why He was so desirous of leaving us the Eucharist. It literally infuses His human nature to ours so that we are healed through this “medicine of immortality” through a share in His divinity. If His human nature was in any way defective then it no longer serves as our medicine.
To understand the question about Christ’s “Terrible Twos” we need to go a little deeper into His human nature. Because the human nature of Christ is united to the Second Person of the Trinity, Christ always had the beatific vision. In Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer in John’s Gospel, He says that eternal life is that the blessed should know God. This is what beatific vision is—eternal union with God. Christ’s soul had this from the moment of conception because it was more closely united to God than any other soul. It was only by a miracle that it did not also spill over into His body. In fact He lets the “governor” off so to speak at the Transfiguration where the Apostles see the glorified humanity of Christ. To have the beatific vision means that He knew all past, present and future things.
One might ask however why, when Christ is asked about the end of the world, He responded by saying that only the Father knows that? What Aquinas says is that He means that it could not be known through human reason or the natural light of the created intellect but by this knowledge of vision. This seems plausible since the saints in Heaven surely have this knowledge. Augustine goes even further in commenting on Christ’s not knowing the end of the world that there are two types of divine knowledge. Christ had communicable knowledge which is related to His mission as Redeemer and that which was noncommunicable.
Aristotle said that the human mind has the capacity to know all created things. Aquinas picked up this theory and said that there are two ways in which we come to know anything; either by divine revelation (infused knowledge) or by acquired knowledge. Bearing in mind that Christ had a perfect human nature, there would have been no ignorance in Him. He would know all things that could be known by the human intellect.
If Christ knew all things, how could “He grow in knowledge and wisdom before God and man” (Lk 2:40)? This is because he grew in acquired knowledge. By “acquired knowledge” St. Thomas means that knowledge which proceeds from the combination of sense perception and the abstracting activity of the intellect that produces universal concepts and ideas. For Christ to grow in knowledge would mean that what He learned by acquired knowledge, He already knew by infused knowledge. It was not new content so much as it was new in the way He came to know it. We do this ourselves anytime we formulate arguments for things that we already know to be true.
With all this serving as a foundation, we can finally answer the question. Our Lady and St. Joseph never suffered through the “Terrible Twos” because Christ was incapable of it (as an aside, Our Lady would have no experience of the “Terrible Twos” because she too would not have gone through them). Because Our Lord from the moment of His conception had perfect control over His heart, there would have been no temper tantrums. Because He already knew all things He would not have been driven to curiosity. He would not have been capable of defiance. He would have seen His parents in their proper authoritative role and would have always obeyed them (more on this in a moment).
Does this also mean that Jesus came out of the womb talking? Certainly it is possible, but I don’t think so. In some respects talking depends on physical development as well as intellectual. The intellectual development was always there but the physical would have occurred in the normal course of growing. He learned to speak in a normal timeframe, although I would expect that it came all at once and not in fits and starts like we see in a “normal” child today. Either way, I wouldn’t expect a papal pronouncement on this question any time soon. But I think the principle is solid. Anything that depended upon intellectual development would have been there at the moment of conception. Anything requiring physical at the appropriate time.
The fact that He had the intellectual ability to communicate would also lend itself to the belief that He would have understood communication from the moment of His conception. So while He could have felt some level of frustration at not being able to communicate by speaking with His parents, He would not have expressed that frustration beyond reason.
One objection might arise to what I said about Jesus always obeying His parents. In fact one of the only episodes in Jesus’ childhood recorded in the Gospels gives the appearance of Him disobeying Mary and Joseph by remaining in the Temple after the rest of the caravan had left. There is only one way to make sense of this and it is related to what I said earlier about Mary herself not having the capacity for the “Terrible Twos.” Because Mary did not suffer from ignorance as an effect of Original Sin, then she should have known that Jesus was not in caravan. The only way that she could not have known was if it related to His mission as Redeemer—which His rather veiled response tells her. This is why Our Lady is surprised that He did what He did—she simply did not expect the “sword of sorrow” to pierce her so early on.