Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up according to custom. And when the feast was ended, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, but supposing him to be in the group they went a day’s journey, but then they began to search for him among their relatives and acquaintances, and when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, searching for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. And when his parents saw him, they were astonished. And his mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.” And he said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
‘For he is our childhood pattern
Day by day like us He grew;
He was little, weak, and helpless;
Tears and smiles like us he knew; …
Christian children all must be
Mild, obedient, good as He.
(from “Once in Royal David’s City” by Cecil Frances Alexander, 1848)
Welcome to the first Sunday after Christmas – popularly referred to as ‘low Sunday’ by virtue of the low number of parishioners who generally front up on this day, but more piously referred to as the ‘Feast of the Holy Family’ – a day for reflecting on the earthly family of Jesus and, by extension, on our own families, so that we can see how we measure up!
That’s how this Sunday is remembered at the Catholic end of the church at any rate. It is a specifically Catholic feast, so declared by Pope Leo XIII in 1893, but our Gospel reading today does likewise focus on the earthly family of Jesus, so it seems to me appropriate that we should remember the Holy Family today too.
Personally, I’m not sure why the Anglican church and all the other churches – Protestant and Orthodox – didn’t likewise adopt this day as a day for remembering the Holy Family. Maybe at the time everybody else felt that there was just one too many Christian feast days at this time of year.
After all, since Christmas, we’ve already had Boxing Day which, as my father always used to remind me, should really be remembered as ‘St Stephen’s Day’ (remembering the bloody death of the first Christian martyr) and then two days after that we had the ‘Feast of the Holy Innocents’ – remembering all the little children that Herod had brutally murdered in Bethlehem!
Isn’t that enough feasting for one week? Perhaps? Or perhaps we need some feast of happy families in the middle of all that to balance out all that violence, as families are the last place you would expect to find violence! (sorta)
Actually, my guess as to why our church hasn’t officially set apart the first Sunday after Christmas as Family Sunday is because for those of us at the Protestant Evangelical end of the church, every Sunday is Family Sunday!
You can see that just by looking at the notice-board of your average Protestant church where you’ll see the main worship time labeled as the ‘Family Service’.
We at the Protestant, Evangelical end of the church love families. We pride ourselves on being family-friendly, and we are big on ‘family values’! Indeed, for a great many people in the church ‘Christian values’ and ‘family values’ are considered synonymous!
If you have any doubts about this just take a look at the website of the Australian Christian Lobby – an influential lobby group that aims to see “Christian principles and ethics accepted and influencing the way we are governed, do business and relate to each other as a community”.
And what do we see at the top of the list when we click on their ‘issues’ link? The first heading is ‘family’, alongside which is a lovely picture of a young Caucasian couple – a man and a women, each of whom are well-dressed and very well-groomed, and embracing them are two young, blond girls (who are presumably meant to be their daughters).
And the picture and the heading say it all, I think. And we know what ‘issues’ these people are going to be concerned about. We know that when we click on the ‘take a stand’ link that we’re not going to be asked to join a march protesting the Palestinian Occupation or join any letter-writing campaign to ‘Bring our boys home from Afghanistan’ or campaign for the rights of our Indigenous sisters and brothers. No. The Australian Christian Lobby focuses on four issues there:
- Gay Marriage
- The rights of gay couples to adopt
As you will likely guess, they are opposed to all four.
And I’m not wanting to parody those positions this morning or even to debate them further. After all, I am likewise keen to take a stand against at least one of those four issues (namely, euthanasia) but my concern right now is simply to point out that we Christians are obsessed with families and family values. And I don’t mean just any families of course, but nuclear families where there are two parents of different genders and multiple children and a Hills-hoist in the backyard because this is the Biblical pattern!
It’s all about being true to the Bible – that’s certainly the case our Archbishop was making when he made headlines on these subjects some months ago.
As he pointed out then, if we give in on the gay marriage issue, polygamy will come next! And we all know how entirely unbiblical that is!
I’m probably sounding rather cynical and I don’t want to come across that way but in truth, good people, I do consider myself an Evangelical and I am concerned about the Bible and I do want to look to the Bible for guidance in these matters rather than simply look to the laws and traditions of our church and culture, but the simple fact is that the Bible actually has very little to say about the significance of the human family, and in terms of the childhood family of Jesus, this snippet from Luke chapter 2 is all we get!
That in itself is surely surprising! Why do the Gospels say so little about the childhood of Jesus? Why is there only one story in one Gospel giving us any idea of what Jesus was like when He was growing up?
Of course I’m not including the stories that proliferated in apocryphal literature, composed centuries after the earthly life of Jesus.
Those who have read the Gospel of Thomas – a book attributed to the Apostle Thomas, but which is generally believed to have been written in the 3rd Century – will remember the highly entertaining stories from the boyhood of Jesus that are recorded there:.
At age 10 the boy Jesus saves his parents from an attack by a lion, and at age 8 there’s the famous clay pigeons episode where the model pigeons the boy Jesus was fashioning out of clay suddenly turned into real pigeons and fly away! Then there’s the story of the boy Jesus who is playing by etching some channels in the mud and another boy comes along and mucks up the channels with his hand. Immediately the boy’s hand withers. Another boy plays a joke on the 6-year old Jesus by jumping on his back and he immediately drops dead. Of course the dead boy is raised and the withered hand is restored.
While these stories are no doubt the product of fanciful human imaginations, their very existence is a reflection of the paucity of genuine historical material that actually exists. Human imagination had to fill in the blanks!
The lack of historical material is surprising enough, but what is even more surprising is that the one genuine story that we get of the Holy Family hardly leaves us with a pattern that we would expect Christian families to emulate!
We read it this morning in Luke chapter two. The 12-year-old Jesus and His family are in Jerusalem. Jesus’ parents head for home, presumably as part of a larger caravan where the boy Jesus had been left with the other children of His own age. A day’s journey from Jerusalem they eventually realise that Jesus, for some inexplicable reason, had decided to stay behind!
They return to Jerusalem. They search high and low. Eventually they find him in the Temple, dialoguing with the academics. They confront Jesus with His behavior and let him know how much distress He has caused them, to which Jesus replies, ‘What did you expect?’ “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
Christian children all must be
Mild, obedient, good as He
Well … it’s not my place to judge whether Jesus was good or not, but if that’s meant to be typical of Jesus’ childhood behavior, mild and obedient He was not!
And we needn’t pretend that this ambiguous relationship between Jesus and His earthly parents somehow resolved itself happily as He got older, for indeed, the only examples we see of Jesus with his mother and siblings in later life suggest that His relationship with His human family continued to be a strained.
According to the story recorded in Matthew 12 and elsewhere, where Jesus’ mother and brothers came looking for him, Jesus practically disowned them!
“Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Jesus says. “And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he says, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:48-50)
Further, Jesus’ statements about the importance of the family and family unity hardly square with those who proclaim ‘family values’:
“For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.” (Matthew 10:35)
And then there’s Jesus’ notorious statement recorded in Luke chapter 12: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple“ (Luke 14:26).
Now I know that all of these verses are open to interpretation and I don’t believe that Jesus ever really requires any of us to hate members of our human families and YET it has to be said that it is no easy thing to demonstrate that our modern ‘family values’ are in any way based on the teachings of Jesus!
This is not to suggest, of course, that we have nothing to learn from Luke chapter 2 nor that we have nothing to celebrate in the Feast of the Holy Family. The problem is only that the lessons from Scripture don’t accord neatly with the teachings of the Australian Christian Lobby.
For the first thing we learn from this story of the Holy Family, I’d suggest, is that there’s nothing particularly holy about the nuclear family concept as such!
Jesus was a part of a human family and we have no reason to believe that childhood for Jesus was not a beautiful experience, filled with all the joys and wonders we might hope to find in a good family home. Even so, Jesus, we know, was not constrained by His human family and His ultimate loyalties were not to his earthly parents.
What sort of childhood pattern this leaves our children, and what sort of parental pattern this leaves for us who would raise children I do not know, but I do see in this depiction of the Holy Family a de-emphasising of the significance of the human family unit and a recognition of the fact that however powerful the relationship might be between parent and child, it is not the most important relationship in the life for either parent or child!
In the end our children must learn to deal with God on their own terms just as we who are parents have to. In the end, no matter who we are and no matter how closely we are bonded to our earthly families, we each need to recognise first the Parenthood of God and the ultimate claim of God upon our lives.
This may sound rather negative and family unfriendly and frankly un-Christian! Even so, while the de-emphasising of the nuclear family may be painful, the flip-side of this is an emphasis on the all-encompassing Parenthood of God that makes us a part of a far greater and more inclusive family – one that includes all sorts of persons to whom we are not related by blood but with whom we are nonetheless united in a spiritual bond through of our Heavenly Father.
This is the family of faith that ultimately transcends our earthly families as the place where we find our true identity and spiritual home – a family that includes peoples of all races, cultures and languages, a community where we can reach out to one another and embrace each other truly as sisters and brothers, whether we be black or white or male or female or rich or poor or young or old or gay or straight or righteous or unrighteous.
This is the new holy family that God is forming – a truly inclusive family where all are accepted, all are appreciated for their uniqueness, and all are loved, just as our Heavenly parent loves each one of us.
“For He was our childhood pattern”
In truth, His is a difficult pattern for us to emulate either as children or as adults. For from the first, what Jesus models for us is a refusal to be constrained by conventional cultural concepts and values as He follows God. Dare we follow this pattern? Dare we expose our children to this pattern? It could mean the end of any quiet, happy family life, though of course it could also be the start of something far bigger, and far more exciting!
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on December 30, 2012.