Sunday 31 December 2023 The First Sunday of Christmas/The Holy Family
Into the heart of the Holy Family
Isaiah 61:10–62:3, Galatians 4:4–7, Luke 2:22–40
Context: an Anglican Eucharist involving an older congregation, predominantly white middle class, in a small rural town
Aim: to consider what it means to be God’s family
I begin with a note to self this morning, and perhaps to you. Family is a word about which I have learned to be very careful. Full of different meanings for each of us, and laden with memories and emotions which will be both good and painful. This morning the Lectionary calls us to think of the Holy Family. Forgive me if, in the clumsiness of my words, I touch on things which are painful, or which do not quite resonate with your own experience.
NOT IN MY IMAGE
I have worked hard in my discipleship to be cautious about how I identify with the Holy Family. As a fair-skinned, blonde-haired, blue-eyed mother, I often find images of the mother of Christ cast in my image, and of course, so far from the reality of Mary of Nazareth. It was as I encountered the Black Madonna in art and literature (I particularly recommend Hall Lee’s book, Black Madonna: A Womanist Look at Mary of Nazareth) that I realised how careful I had to be in identifying too closely with Mary; how close I had come to casting something holy in my own image instead of an image which better reflected the fullness of God and God’s inhabiting of the likeness of all of humankind.
This is important. When you or I think of family, perhaps we turn first to our own experiences, both joyous and painful. How slow I am to also recall refugee families torn apart by failed attempts to reach the safety of our shores. Or the families living between Ukraine and ‘safe’ countries in Western Europe. Or the families of one: one, because everyone else has succumbed to the cruelty of famine and disease. How slow I am to lift my gaze beyond myself and recognise my brothers and sisters across the world, remembering our shared identity in Christ incarnate. A likeness which transcends context, circumstance and culture.
CHILDREN, BRIDES, AND BRIDEGROOMS
The Bible, too, has different things to say about family. For Paul, writing to the Galatians, Mary’s birthing of the Christ Child opens a doorway through which the whole people of God are called to enter, where we become not just children of God, but filled with the Spirit of Christ: the one who cries to God with the intimate language of parenthood, and fills our hearts with that same cry.
Isaiah had an inkling this might happen. His imagery is of brides and bridegrooms, but the message is the same: God is doing a radical new thing, beyond all expectations. Something which will draw us together, into the heart of God’s very being. Something which will subvert the established norms and show how little we have loved and lived so far – how much the best is yet to come.
Isaiah’s foresight comes to some fulfilment as Simeon locks eyes with Christ in the temple. I love how Giovanni Bellini portrays this moment: the strength and vulnerability of each person in the scene. And Christ, who is turned to his mother and the women who surround her, cheeks flushed with contentment.
WE JOURNEY ON
Friends, we stand today on the threshold of a new year. I’m not a big fan of resolutions, but I have learned at least to be attentive to the ways in which the shifts of time call us to pause, to notice. What do we notice today, as we stand here with the Holy Family? For me, there is something about that opening up of something which is touched on as Simeon meets the eyes of the Christ Child, and which is still yet to come to fulfilment. The now, and the not yet. The clues weave their way through the readings: a new name, vindication and salvation, a light, a sword to pierce the soul, adoption, heirs…
The glimpses I see of how things might be, could be, if we continue our walk together with this holy child, are tantalising enough that today I will step through the threshold, into the coming year, feeling something of the contentment of his gaze upon me. But I cannot do this alone. I am called to be part of something bigger, drawn into the heart of this Holy Family with all who have been adopted as children and heirs. So, my brothers and sisters, will you join me?
Hall Lee, C. (2017). Black Madonna: A Womanist Look at Mary of Nazareth. ISBN: 1498293816.
Giovanni Bellini, Presentation at the Temple. 1460.
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