Christmas 1

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Sermon: 

My name is John Fitzmaurice and I am Director of Ordinands and Vocation.

From today’s Gospel reading:

“…they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger (Luke 2:16)

The Sunday after Christmas is when the Church traditionally reflects on the Holy Family and is as good a time as any for us to reflect on family life. Despite the Covid pandemic restrictions, many of us I guess will have had a lovely time with our families over the Christmas period, some of us may have had a more difficult experience, and some of us may have had little or no contact with our families and that may well be a source of hurt and pain. Along with the idealisation of Christmas in the media comes the idealisation of the family. For our Christmases to be perfect we are supposed to have spent them  with an ideal family full of healthy, handsome people who never fall out with each other, and as we know real life is seldom like that.

Christians are often tempted to idealise the Holy Family – Jesus, Mary and Joseph are portrayed as the model of domestic bliss. It doesn’t take much reflection however to realise that they were far from that ideal: Mary, an unmarried teenage mother; Joseph the fiancée not quite sure where he stood but wanting to do the right thing and having an intuition that he was caught up in something of greater significance than he could imagine...; and Jesus, the Son of God, to whom shepherds and foreign faith leaders (for that is what the Magi were) would come and worship, and who Herod would attempt to kill by the massacre all the first-born of his generation – those whom we call the Holy Innocents. Much of this would not find its way into a television advert for the ideal family Christmas.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about the Holy Family however is that we know so little about it other than the one story we read about a little later in this chapter from Luke’s gospel. It tells of Jesus, aged 12, already demonstrating a certain precociousness by hanging out with the teachers it the temple or as he put it ‘in his Father’s house’. The frustrating bit is that the years spent with his family before his public ministry began aged 30, it could be argued, were the most important in Jesus’ life. It was during those years that he was formed and taught to recognise who he truly was - God visible in human form. It was during these years that he was resourced to undertake the public ministry that would lead him to his death and resurrection. So what happened in these years, how was all this put in place? Well the straight-forward answer is that we don’t know – all we can do is to speculate. And so I want to speculate for a few moments on the role of families in the formation of faith.

The first thing to say is that we are all caught up in them (be we married, single or co-habiting) and most families are far from standard...they come in all shapes and sizes, but families have shown themselves to be particularly resilient at adapting to the often complex set of relationships of which they consist. This takes time and effort and is often profoundly difficult.

The second thing to say is that there is both a tight and a loose interpretation of the term family. The tight interpretation is a set of close blood relations, whereas the looser interpretation is a collection of people some of whom may be related to us by blood and some not, but with whom we share our lives in a relatively committed and on-going way – we often describe such relationships as ‘being like family’, sometimes indeed we prefer such relationships to our actual families! Biblically the word ‘household’ is used to capture this looser interpretation and it is a word and a concept I believe that we desperately need to engage with more in our contemporary society as I think it better captures the complexity of our social and relational lives.

Either way families (or households), when they are working well, have some common defining factors. Firstly they are places of intimacy and commitment;  they are places where we should be able to feel relaxed and at home; places where we should not feel afraid to be who we really are, and places where we feel accepted. And it is because our families are (or at least should be) places where we can be who we really are without fear of rejection, that they become places where we can create our identities, or rather where our identities are created. It is the quality of our relationships with those closest to us that, for better or for worse, create our self-image, that create our identity. Our self-understanding is to a large part developed through the feedback we receive from those closest to us. Our families, our households then are meant to provide a place of intimacy and commitment where we can discover our true identities, but also a safe place where we can learn about the world and our place in it. Here we learn (sometime well, sometimes not-so-well) how to relate to others, how to be part of a society in microcosm, in preparation for our participation in wider society. Families / households also provide a sense of stability in an often fast-changing world, not because those families aren’t themselves called to grow and develop – they are! – but because of the quality of relationships that provide a safe space in which to examine and explore and ultimately to own the true nature of the changes we are called to make as we as individuals and as a society continue to grow and develop.

Now of course the church has vigorously embraced the language of the family in recent years – we speak of the ‘family of the Church’ and of the ‘household of faith’ and indeed there are great similarities between the ecclesial family and its secular counterpart. The Church family is prone to exactly the same complexities as is the secular family, and frequently fails to live up to its calling and it potential. It too is called to be a place of intimacy and commitment, where we can feel safe simply to be who we are without fear of rejection or condemnation – a place where we know ourselves to be accepted by God and by others. Here too we can discover our identity as children of God and the consequences of such a discovery in how we live our lives in wider society. Here too we can experience how to live in a microcosm of society which at its best models the values of the Kingdom to the wider society.

Indeed the church family, the ideal household of faith, properly lived should be able to offer a second chance to those whose secular families didn’t best serve them. The household of faith should be able offer another opportunity for people to rewrite the scripts that their birth families gave them, sometimes in minor ways, sometimes in more major ways, and to contextualise those scripts within the larger story of faith. Within this household, this family of the church we are enabled like Jesus to grow, as St. Luke describes it ‘...in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.’

It’s easy to get cynical about family life, about the church, particularly when confronted with the complexities and sometimes dysfunction which can be part of both. But the reality is that there is something deep within the human psyche that can’t give up on either. We need those places of intimacy and commitment, those places where we can discover our identities, where we can rest and discern how we can and must change. Those who are damaged by family life continue to commit to new relationships in the hope and belief that things can be better; those who have been damaged by the church still feel an inexorable call to be members of a community committed to seeking the reality of God who is greater than the failings of the institution.

Don’t be fooled by idyllic images of the Holy Family, family life is hard work both in society and in the church and yet for most of us without it our lives would be severely diminished.

After his Presentation in the Temple (which we will celebrate later in January) Jesus went home and for 30 years lived the ups and downs of family life. For Joseph and Mary it was no less hard work than it is for us, but by that hard work they created a place wherein God was formed among them – the challenge for us is no different.

Heavenly Father, whose blessed Son shared at Nazareth the life of an earthly home: help your Church to live as one family, united in love and obedience, and bring us all at last to our home in heaven; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Questions:

  1. What do you most value about family life?
  2. What do you most struggle with in relation to family life?
  3. How can your family and/or household become a place wherein Christ in formed?

 


Page last updated: 18th December 2020 10:32 AM
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