Thought for the week - 31 December
Christmas is such a strange time isn’t it. Those of us gathered in church today may well wonder how it ever seemed to be over so fast, because we had a few weeks of Advent, that season that everyone has heard of but so few have experienced, like a Jabberwocky settling himself down in the middle of what, to most of the world, is Christmas in early Advent. I was annoyed to find that I had missed the Kendal Christmas Market…..because it was in November. But hey ho, at least it becomes a time when families get together and what passes for peace descends, even though we know, much like the Holy Family today, war and trouble is all around us. At least we didn’t have to meet in bubbles, not that I ever did. Maybe like me you are still doing the laundry and wondering if the pigs in blankets will last until this evenings guests if they’re fried up with a bit of honey and mustard. At least if anyone gets food poisoning you can just say they must have drunk too much.
But whether people come together to celebrate the birth of our Lord, or simply get together to see each other and exchange gifts, Christmas can be a mixed time for many. When families get together, in can be as much an occasion of difficulty as joy. Old rivalries and tensions may resurface, and arguments flare up as the Christmas whisky gift sets loosen the shackles of politeness and reserve. And for others, there is the pain of loneliness arising from family breakup, the isolation brought about by mental or physical sickness, or distance from loved ones which makes Christmas something to be endured. What I’m trying to say is that the mental picture of the perfect Christmas is a lie, unless you are Bing Crosby and actually own a ski lodge in Gstaad.
The Holy Family are not in a ski lodge in Gstaad, and are not planning an après ski get together with Roger Whitaker, Henry Kissinger and Marilyn Monroe, with Zino Davidoff making a special appearance to distribute cigars to all and – well, I was going to say ‘sundry’, but that is almost certainly the wrong word to use! The Holy Family have heard that Herod intends killing the first born, specifically theirs, and they run as fast as they can to Egypt to keep their family, their baby, safe. They spend the days after Christmas escaping violence and war, so I don’t always understand where some of the Carols we sing got their ideas from.
Family life does not run smoothly for Jesus, Mary and Joseph, and it’s not from Uncle X having too much, or the turkey being undercooked, that’s all fine, but it’s got nothing to do with Christmas, really. Right from the very beginning, there is struggle, hardship, and the need for extraordinary courage and endurance in the face of difficulties. How true does this seem of your own experience of family life? Many of us will not have to flee a murderous tyrant, but quite a few are doing so right now.
The Holy Family are held up as a model, today, of family life. And rightly so, but there is no model of mild, obedient children (oh how I hate that line from the carol!), instead we find a boy who has run away and has put his relationship to his seemingly absent father ahead of that to his partly adoptive family, and expects them just to accept that. We don’t find ‘Mary Mother mild’, but a woman who has heard the message of an angel, given birth in a cow shed and run through a hostile nation to escape persecution. If we are to think of the Holy Family as any kind of model for family life – and I think we should – I would like to suggest that this example is not best shown in the carols, but rather in the flight to Egypt. Mary and Joseph are model parents because of their immediate response to the needs of the baby Jesus. Responding to the angel’s message, they will do anything to ensure his safety. Mary and Joseph had no way of knowing what was going to happen – but they did it anyway, they trusted in God. That should be the scene on our Christmas cards, that might reverse the decline in faith. Facing the truth usually does us good!
This family, called to form and raise a boy, is a school where the adults are formed through knowing and loving the child. The Gospel contrasts the scribes in the Temple, amazed at the wisdom of the boy Jesus, as so many will be amazed at his words in his earthly ministry – an amazement so compatible with taking offence, rejecting Jesus, putting him to death. Those entrusted with teaching Israel will not want to learn, will not be able to see. The holy family is a place of passing on the story of human life, of the old shaping the young. But even more this family is a place where the young shape the old, where the heart must grow younger as it contemplates the face of Christ.
Maybe that sounds too simplistic, but maybe we are too complex. Mary and Joseph brought up a child who did things they could not possibly understand, and they loved Him for it. Jesus escapes from the little world of his family, and then he comes back offering them the vast home of the Kingdom. May he give us the grace to let go of those whom we love, keeping the door open for their return, trusting that they will come back with gifts we could not have imagined and ones which, surely, we will not understand.