The Holy Family First Sunday of Christmas 2017 Madingley
Isaiah 61:10-62:3 Galatians 4:4-7 Luke 2:15-21
The photographs we treasure of members of the family proudly revealing their new-born child to the world, usually show the parents looking at the camera, broad smiles suffusing their faces. But if we think of the portraits painted by the great artists, and the Christmas cards we have just been sending out, we see that the way that Mary and Joseph are portrayed is very different. Less of the, “Look what we have done!” and more of a sense of wonder, and even puzzlement and concern about what they have committed themselves to. That might appear to be us to be justified, and a correct way for them to react. But we rarely hear or see any exploration of what must have been going on in their hearts and minds. Yes, we are told by Saint Luke that Mary, “kept all these sayings in her heart and pondered them.” Words which are quickly read, and just as easily, overlooked.
Yet consider the situation she found herself in. A very young woman, far from home, producing her first baby without any close female family members to help and encourage her. And when the birth had been safely navigated, she experienced, not a gaggle of excited family members all coming to coo over the latest addition to the family, but a group of the poorest members of society, the shepherds, who spoke of angels directing them to come, and who intruded into this intensely private family affair without a by-your -leave.
But beyond celebrating the birth, for Jews there was, and is, a further major event to be experienced by the whole gathering of family members. That is the ceremony of the naming and circumcision of baby boys, which had to take place on the eighth day after birth, an event the church will be observing on Tuesday. For Jewish families of whatever standing, there could be no delay, and no excuses for not carrying out this duty laid down by the law. For Mary and Joseph, this highly significant moment in the life of the child and the assembled relatives, had to be carried out amongst strangers, and with no other members of the family group present. At least they had no difficulty over the choice of name, since the angel had told Mary that, “You shall call the child Jesus.” That name, Joshua, was fairly common in Jewish families, and means, “God brings salvation.” Experiencing this important occasion on their own must have added to the sense of poignancy at this birth, and the feeling that somehow the arrival of Jesus had changed their lives in a way which would stretch their understanding and ability to accept the will of God for them.
In Luke’s account of the earliest stages of Jesus’ life, we read on two occasions that Mary “treasured these sayings and pondered them in her heart.” The first time she did it was when the angel saluted her and told her that she had found favour with God, so that she would bear his son. The second time was when the shepherds recounted to her, and to Joseph, all that the angels had told them about this remarkable birth in Bethlehem. It is difficult enough dealing with all that accompanies the birth of your first-born, but recognizing that this seems to be only the beginning of the challenging events of his life, must have been additionally stressful. For Mary to be portrayed, as she often is, as having a serene sweet smile, reveals either an appreciation of how special she was, or an inability to understand what turmoil there must have been in her heart and mind.
We know little of what happened to Joseph apart from his obedience to the words of the angel who told him to escape to Egypt with his young family, until the current ruler of Israel had died. So again, separated from their own support network of family and close friends, they had to go even further afield, and for an extended period. It is presumed that when they returned to Nazareth, Jesus would have watched Joseph in the carpenter’s shop, and there is the irony of him seeing the work which went into constructing items from wood, since this would provide the means of his own death. Joseph also appears in the account of the family’s visit to Jerusalem for the Passover when Jesus was 12 years old. It is presumed that at some point between then, and when Jesus was crucified, Joseph had died, because otherwise, as Jesus’ legal father, he would have been expected to take charge of Jesus’ body after his death.
Mary is the one who is the human bridge between Jesus’ early life and his adult ministry. None of the other characters who appear in the birth narratives, return to play a part in his later life. She is human enough to be shown to have a concern for Jesus’ mental stability in John’s gospel, when she and his half brothers arrive to try and encourage him to give up his teaching ministry. But she must have accepted his teaching because she is also shown to be with him right to the end of his life, and standing with the other women near the cross.
Mary must have had a premonition at his birth of the enormous conflict between human expectations and spiritual realities which eventually brought about the final escalation of events into her son’s death. The strange dichotomy between the glory of the gathered angels singing praise to God in the highest, and the arrival of a baby in the poorest of circumstances, with little human attention apart from a group of shepherds, must have been one of those things which she pondered about. And there are those who see a strong connection between the circumstances of Jesus’ birth and death, since on both occasions we are told he was wrapped in cloth, and placed in a borrowed resting place, because there was no other one which he could claim as his own.
For Mary that commitment she made to God when he called upon her to be the mother of his Son, became both an onerous duty as well as one which she willingly accepted. Her own understanding of God, and how he is present in events which would seem to deny that fact, must have grown enormously as she reflected on the life of this special child.
She is rightly respected, and in some areas of the church, venerated, as a faithful servant of God, who sets an example for us all in both serving him, and dealing with times when his plans for us seem strange, or he appears to have left us to deal with things on our own. But we should not overlook Joseph. His generosity in taking on a woman who it would appear had been unfaithful to him, and protecting her from public opprobrium, was remarkable. And having done that, he was prepared to listen to the directions given to him by angels, in both accepting the child, and in fleeing to Egypt to protect him. Clearly a God-fearing and upright man, he too will have had some influence in the raising of Jesus even if most of that task was left to the women. Joseph, in his own way, must have played a part in God’s decision to entrust his Son to Mary as mother, and Joseph as the legal father.
For us there is some encouragement as we see this little family struggling through the decisions they feel God has called them to make. Mary’s acceptance of her call was immediate, but there was “pondering” to be done later, as some of the implications of her choice became clearer. For both Joseph and Mary there may even have been times when they wondered if they had been deluded, or whether God had left them, as they worked through the early years in exile in Egypt. Or perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps they never doubted their shared calling; perhaps everything was always crystal clear. But I think that under the readings which we hear every Christmas, there are hints that for this family, life presented problems and challenges which could not be solved easily. Recognizing their half hidden struggles may encourage us with our own, knowing that the way has been trodden before, and God is faithful to those who seek to do his will.