Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Sermon at Parish Mass Christmas 1 2017

In the Church of the Shepherds' Field, Bethlehem. Photo: Matthew Duckett

Isaiah 61.10  -  62.3
Galatians 4.4-7
Luke 2.15-21

Today’s gospel picks up the story where we left off on Christmas night, with the visit of the shepherds to the manger, and we are reminded that the good news of Jesus is first made known to people on the margins, outsiders to the society of their day.
But we are also reminded that this is part of Israel’s story. Jesus is circumcised on the eighth day, in accordance with the Law and Covenant. God has chosen and called this people, so that not only the Jews but also, through them, the whole world, might know the salvation of God. As Paul reminds us in Galatians, Jesus was “born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law”.
This is a new story for humanity, the dawn of a new hope. And the place where it begins is a family: the Holy Family, of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. This has not come about by chance. This scene has been in the mind of God from the beginning. The birth of Jesus fulfils the first prophesy in the Bible, in Genesis 3.15, when God says to the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.” Jesus was born to destroy the works of the Devil; he is the offspring of the woman who strikes the serpent’s head. And if you’ve ever wondered why some images of the Virgin Mary show her standing on a snake, that is the reason.
So the Holy Family has been in the mind of God from all eternity, but it is a real family. This is no pretence. At this time of year it’s customary for certain pundits to remind us that plenty of pre-Christian myths and pagan legends feature virgin births and gods becoming incarnate. That’s perfectly true. But those are stories of gods masquerading as humans until they are unmasked at the end of the story, or the birth of heroes who were hybrid half-gods and half-humans.
The Bible is at pains to point out that the story of Jesus is not like those. This is a real baby, fully human, born in time, constrained by culture and religion just as he is wrapped in the swaddling clothes. He is laid in the manger, an animal feeding trough, with all the mess and improvisation and risk that goes with that. As St Paul says in Philippians, he emptied himself.
His circumcision, the first shedding of his blood, points not only to his religious inculturation, but also to his being really human. This first blood shed by Jesus the Human One foreshadows the cross; this baby who can really bleed will really die.
When we speak of Jesus and the Holy Family, we need to be clear: this is a real child, a real family, a real human situation with all its limitations and mess and muddle. When the church confesses that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine, that is a faith anchored in reality. The Word did not appear to us; the Word did not come to us as an idea. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. In this messy world, in a nature like ours. The scandal of the Word made flesh is the necessary preliminary to the scandal of the Cross.
We need to recover this feast of the Holy Family from too soft a focus. Christmas, in secular culture, comes to us with so many images of unreality. Ads present us with perfect families, middle class parents in an effortlessly clean and tidy house with a table groaning beneath Waitrose’s or Sainsbury’s best, darling children, eyes wide with wonder, perfectly behaved as they unwrap their presents, all is goodwill and all is well with the world.
Well, let’s be honest. It’s not always like that, is it? Families are good things, we love each other as best we can, and in them we grow and learn to be human. But it often a case of muddling through and dealing with the mess and imperfection of our own and other people’s lives.
Spouses and partners know very well the hard graft of getting on with each other down the years. The commitment to stay together for life is the necessary precondition for the honest truth telling by which they can get to know themselves as well as each other, and by which love becomes real, incarnated in their lives. And getting to know ourselves is the precondition for repentance. Which is why, for many people, taking a life partner in faith turns out to be the path of conversion to which they are called.
And, whatever aspirations and plans we might form, children, if we are blessed with them, always turn out to be mysterious strangers, emerging as people in their own right, unknown guests welcomed into our lives who will change us, one way or another.
None of this is distant at all from Jesus. He was born a real baby in a real family. So we can forget the soft focus of the Christmas ads. We are allowed to tell the truth about ourselves in faith and hope because it is in messy flawed human lives just like ours that God comes to meet us in Jesus.
Faith and hope tells us that the human family is not the end of the story. God comes to us in Jesus to save us, not to leave us where we were. That is the meaning of his name, given at his circumcision, “the Lord saves”. If the doctor comes to visit us at home when we are sick, we expect her to prescribe the cure, not just to offer empty sympathy and then go away leaving us just as we were.
Jesus comes to us with the great cure, the end of sin and death. He is born in time, in a real human family, to found a new family, one in which all can be members. Jesus was born, says St Paul in Galatians, “so that we might receive adoption as children”. He is born the Son of God so that all might be adopted in him as children of God. No longer slaves, no longer subject to the law and its condemnation of sin, but children.
What does it mean to be children of God, in Christ? It means that he has joined his Divine nature to our human nature, so that our humanity can be joined to his Divinity. In him we become “partakers of the Divine Nature” as the second letter of St Peter puts it.
But because this is anchored in the Word made flesh, becoming partakers of the Divine Nature is also what makes us truly, fully, human at last: redeemed, made new, whole and complete, finding ourselves in one another and in God. The real gritty humanity of our lives, our families and circumstances is not something that God avoids. Rather, it is right where God comes to meet us in Jesus. That is the meaning of Christmas, and the reason why we celebrate this feast every year with great joy. 

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