Sunday, 30 December 2012

Christmas 1: In my Father's house

Today’s Gospel story is one which comes with a built in picture. Quite literally built in – it is here in our stained glass window. There is Jesus, in the middle, a boy of twelve in the grand surroundings of the Temple – we’ve moved swiftly on from the baby of Christmas Day. And there are Mary and Joseph in front and to the side of him – they are the ones with the haloes - obviously concerned and letting him know that in no uncertain terms. How could he put them through this worry? I’m sure that many of us who have children have had that horrible moment when we realised that we had lost track of them somehow. It easily happens, and when it does, your imagination goes straight into overdrive with all the things that might have happened. The fact that Jesus is twelve makes no difference at all – my children are 28 and 30 and I am still waiting for the moment when I finally stop worrying about them….It hasn’t come yet…

So Mary and Joseph have backtracked a day’s journey to Jerusalem, probably worrying all the way, expecting to find Jesus lying in a ditch somewhere, or not find him at all. They search for three days, three terrifying days. But at last, there he is, back where they started, in the Temple. And has he missed them? Was he worrying about them? No, not a bit of it. We don’t know how he has been managing – has someone been feeding him? Has he been bedding down in the Temple precincts, or not sleeping at all? It doesn’t seem to have been an issue for him.  He is having a whale of a time, in the midst of the religious discussions that filled the Temple courts, listening, asking questions, debating with the leaders. In the picture here we see him in front of a grand looking chair with a plushy cushion. He looks as if he has just risen up from it, and I think that’s what we are meant to assume, because in his world teachers sat down to teach, with their disciples sitting at their feet. This artist is suggesting that that is what has been happening here. He’s been the teacher, and all these other men, far older and more experienced have let him take that place without question. They have accepted him as an equal, if not a superior.

When Mary asks him what he was thinking of to put them through this worry, he airily responds that he can’t see why they were so anxious. Didn’t they know that he must be in his Father’s house? He isn’t just saying that it was inevitable he would have been there, just like it might be inevitable if you have a clothes mad teenager that you would find them in the nearest branch of whatever the latest go-to place for fashion is. He is saying that he “must” be there – the Greek word implies necessity. This is where he needed to be, in the Temple, talking theology. Mary and Joseph might have lost him, but he hadn’t lost himself; he had found himself, found his rightful place, his true identity, his true calling. He goes back with Mary and Joseph to Nazareth, but we sense that something has shifted. He is obedient to his parents – for the moment anyway – but this has been a wakeup call for them all. Their boy has his own life to live, his own calling to answer. This translation tells us that Mary  “treasured these things in her heart” which makes it sound as if it was a golden memory she liked to return to, but the Greek word actually just means that she kept it carefully, and my guess is that she recalled it with some sense of foreboding – a sign of trouble to come.

It is a shocking and disturbing story. Three whole days he is missing, just as he will lie in the tomb later for three days, lost to the world and leaving his mother to helpless grief yet again. Then, as in this story, it will essentially be something he has chosen – he could have turned back from the cross, spared Mary that sorrow, avoided trouble like the good, protective son any mother might hope for. But no, that was something he said he “must” do too, a path he must follow, no matter what the cost was, not only for himself but for others too, especially his poor, long-suffering family.

It’s not just anxiety they would have suffered in the story we heard today, though, but shame as well. Family obligations at the time of Jesus were sacred, just as they are in many societies today, and family honour a precious commodity, jealously guarded. Everyone had their carefully defined roles and they were expected to stick to them. It could work fine, so long as everyone was happy to play the part allotted to them, but heaven help those who stepped out of line, or who couldn’t or wouldn’t do what was expected.

That is what is happening here. Jesus declares that he is not going to be bound by the traditions and expectations that would have been placed on an elder son, that he would take over the headship of his family and continue the line. His ultimate loyalty lies elsewhere. “I must be in my Father’s house” he says. How does that sound to Joseph, do you suppose? Whatever we believe about Jesus’ parentage – and it is really quite hard to know precisely what the first Christians meant when they called him the Son of God - Joseph had cared for him for twelve years, probably at considerable personal cost. He had been a father to him, a generous and caring father as far as we can tell. If we find this story uncomfortable then I think that is because we are meant to.

The fact is that Christianity has always challenged as well as supporting family life. The Gospels are disturbingly ambivalent about families. They start with the story of what seemed to those around to be a rather dodgy pregnancy and end up with Jesus gathering a very diverse bunch of people – tax collectors and prostitutes included – and forming them into what is, to all intents and purposes a whole new kind of family, one not built on the bonds of blood but made from whoever happens turn up and want to be part of it. Jesus appears to throw the old standards and patterns of family life to the four winds. He treats unrelated women with a familiarity that would have been shocking at the time, debating theology with them at the drop of a hat. Leave your nets, your family businesses. Let the dead bury the dead, he shockingly announces. He does teach that it is important to look after those who are in your care, but he doesn’t put the family on some kind of pedestal, as if it is sacred in its own right. There are times, he says, when all of us might need to stand out against our family, not fit into it, and there will be families which won’t look the way our culture says they should. What matters is the quality of our relationships with those who share our lives, not the outward form of whatever we call family, or whether other people think they are “proper” families.

That was a message the early Christians really needed to hear and to proclaim. Many had lost the support of their families of origin when they decided to follow the way of Jesus. Who did they belong to now? To one another, said Paul – that comes through loud and clear in our second reading, part of his letter to the church at Colossae. The picture he paints is of a people who don’t just happen to come together in the same building to worship, but who are clothed with love for one another, bound together with inextricable bonds. It is a family in all but name, and probably for some the only family they will know.

This was a controversial message then and it can be a difficult one for us to hear now too. We wince for Mary and Joseph as we hear this story from the Gospels, and perhaps we would rather skip it all together, but the fact is that Christian faith, while it values families, warns us of their dangers and limitations too. Families can be wonderful places to grow and develop, places of love and care and respect and joy. But they can also be prisons in which people are forced into roles they are not meant for or suffer abuse in a silence they feel they can’t break because family honour would suffer. It is easy for the idea and ideal of family life to become more important than the individuals who are part of it, but the reality is that families are what we make them – there is no ideal family, just this group of people, that group of people trying to live together in whatever context they find themselves. When we end up worshipping an image of the family, we risk making the lives of real families, and those who don’t have a family at all, more difficult than they need to be as they strive to achieve that image, or are reminded that they never will. That can be especially acute at Christmastime, when happy smiling families seem to dominate the adverts, despite the fact that it is actually about a homeless couple with a baby of apparently dubious parentage born far too soon after the wedding to be respectable, attended only by a bunch of shepherds and foreigners…

I don’t believe that this story we have heard today is an invitation for children to go about causing unnecessary worry to their parents – we worry enough anyway, thank you. Nor does it say that families don’t matter. But it does call us to make sure we have a sense of perspective about them, not letting them become an end in themselves where the outward form is more important than the inner reality, but rather cherishing the many ways we can nurture and care for one another, in families which are whatever shape works best for those within them. That way we can create spaces where everyone can grow into their true status as sons and daughters of the God who is a parent to us all.

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