Holy Family, 26 Dec 21
There was always tension when it came to football in my household when I was growing up: my dad supported Manchester United fan (not just a glory hunter I should add, he travelled with them across England and Europe when he was young); my mum and sister are Chelsea fans and I was an Arsenal fan. The room in which we watched the television was never quite divided to keep warring factions apart but we weren’t far from it at times!
I was listening on BBC Radio 4 the other day to a programme called The Moral Maze. It’s not a bad thing to listen to as an introduction to moral issues and there’s sometimes a fairly sane Christian point of view presented. They were discussing tension and apparently political scientists are saying that human society is more divided than ever but what was interesting was that the commentators say this division is not because there’s a greater difference between people’s views or that we disagree about more important things but simply the fact that human beings are less tolerant of each other. There is less love.
In part I think this is because we are less likely to mix with those who have different opinions to us. When we ask a question in our search engines the way these things work, I’m told, is such that the answer we get matches others’ who have typed things similar to us. In contrast, the Church is to stand as a place where people can have all sorts of views on some of the contentious issues of our day: republican or monarchist, Brexit or Remain, to lock down or not to lock down. Obviously there are other issues where there is a clear line the Church takes. We might struggle with her teachings but we are to follow the example of Jesus’ obedience, who subjects Himself to doing what Mary and Joseph tell Him to do for He is their son.
Archbishop Justin often speaks about how the Church can be a place that models disagreeing well for the world. Indeed, this would be a much needed and truly radical gift we could make. Sadly the divisions within the Church and our inability to value each other’s different views on whatever hot topic it is paralyses us too often. In reality, in most parish communities on the ground we muddle along pretty well but we struggle to communicate this forbearance to the outside world in our media driven age wanting a big headline and which is, by and large, very opposed to the flourishing of the Church. We need constantly to hear again the call we have in Paul’s letter to the Colossians, our second reading today: “You are God’s chosen race, his saints; he loves you, and you should be clothed in sincere compassion…bear with one another.”
The Archbishop of Canterbury has a unit for Reconciliation, a theme which has always been dear to his heart. It produced a short course called “Difference” and we were asked to be one of the trial parishes for it two years ago. We started the course but the first lock down interrupted it. The course encouraged three habits that we would benefit from having if we are to be better at seeing things from the point of view of another. These hats are: first, being curious, finding out why someone believes the things they do. Is it their background, their childhood, because of their experience? Secondly, being present. So, we’re not to be afraid of conflict because the more we run away from it, the less experience we will have of resolving it. Thirdly, reimagining the situation: how could things be done differently so the concerns of the other could be taken into account properly. Being curious, being present, reimagining. They’re good habits for us to have as we engage with each other in our families, in our church, in our work places, on our streets.
One of the very small practical steps the course suggests is getting your news from a different place from time to time. If you buy a particular newspaper everyday which is left wing or tabloid then maybe sometimes buy a newspaper which is right wing or broadsheet. If you normally just buy a local paper, buy a national paper or one from a different country. It could be the same with the websites we read or the radio stations we listen to. Another suggestion was to think of places where we find ourselves uncomfortable and try going there, maybe just for a moment, maybe with a friend holding our hand, but going to that uncomfortable place. These seem particularly good things to aim for as we contemplate in these twelve days of Christmas the coming of God among us, the Word made Flesh.
Today the Church celebrates the Sunday after Christmas - which happens to be the day after Christmas this year - and it is normally designated as the Feast of the Holy Family. Descriptions of many events from the life of the Holy Family are largely left unrecorded by the Gospel writers. It seems sad at one level but we can only assume God knows best in how he inspires the four Evangelists who wrote the Gospels. We celebrate one of these four Evangelists tomorrow, St John. (There’s Mass at 10am at St Mary’s). John gives us the beautiful detail of our Lord’s conversation with His Mother on the Cross when Jesus looks at her and directs her to the author of the Gospel and says, “Behold, your Son.” Jesus then looks at the disciple whom He loved we’re repeatedly told in the Gospel, and says, “Behold your Mother” (St John 19:25-27).
By the time of Jesus’ death on the Cross the Holy Family is without St Joseph, it is assumed because He has died. Today’s Gospel, however, has the three of them together. Well, at least they’re together when they’re in Jerusalem at the start of the narrative and by the end they’re reunited in the Temple. We might wonder what sort of bad parenting was happening which led to them losing a twelve year old but I’m sure its easily done! St Bede in his commentary on this passage raises this issue and points out it is because men and women travelled separately on these pilgrimages which would have involved a great throng of people. Children flitted between the two groups so Mary could have thought Jesus was with Joseph and vice versa.
In today’s Gospel, St Luke is packing a lot of imagery in that links the Church and the Holy Family. First, it all takes place in the Temple in Jerusalem. When the Christ Child grows up and begins His public ministry He will speak of the Temple that He will raise up on the third day after others have destroyed it. Those who hear this are left incredulous as they comment, “It took us forty-six years to build this Temple and yet you say you’ll rebuild it in three days!” St John comments that Jesus was really talking about His Body (St John 2:13-22). And Christ’s Body is the Church as we know from Paul’s teachings (I Corinthians 12:12-20). Note in today’s Gospel how it takes Mary and Joseph three days, yes three days to find Jesus. It’s a prefiguring of His death, burial and Resurrection, which we, the Church, long to unite ourselves with. This is our vocation, hence we offer the Mass, proclaiming the saving event (I Corinthians 11:26).
There are lots of things which the Church learns from the life of families and which families are to learn from the Church. The importance of growth is one such characteristic. Human families grow as new members are born and as they’re introduced through new boyfriends or girlfriends. The family of the Church grows through the baptism of new members and the reconnecting of strayed sheep back in to the flock. Also, the obligations of love look different for the various members of the family. Mummies and daddies have to love each other in a way that is different to how mummies love their children. So, it is within the Church where each is given a vocation and place.
Blood is thicker than water, the old saying goes, meaning family ties survive the tears of hurt and the anger of argument about what to watch on the tele on Boxing Day. If this is true of our biological families - and I’m not sure it always is, to be honest - then it certainly should be true of God’s family the Church. The blood that binds us together is that of the Saviour, Jesus Christ, who learns from Mary and Joseph having emptied Himself to assume our frail condition. We’re washed in the blood, indeed our robes are white for we have been cleaned by it (Revelation 22:14). May our Church family celebrate all the different views we have, discovering what each other thinks and finding ways to respect that. And let’s seek the unity which is at the heart of the God we worship, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.