Grace to you and peace from our loving God, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Today is about beginnings. The endings are over—well, almost. We have moved through the end of a liturgical year. We have journeyed through the anticipation of an end to the season of Advent. Arriving at Bethlehem, Christmas has come. And we now take twelve days to pause and pay attention to what this new birth of Jesus into the world means.
The gospel story for today suggests that it means, first and foremost, that we are born too—born into a new and holy family.
Luke relates a rare story from the early life of what is called the "Holy Family"—Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. What that first Holy Family is doing expresses their participation in a larger family—the people of God known as the Jews. Their trek to Jerusalem for the Passover festival was an act of faithfulness to family ties and traditions-going all the way back to the deliverance of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. Just as we might gather together as families for thanksgiving or Christmas, so they gathered to celebrate the mighty acts of God in history at the Passover.
Luke tells us that this family, like the ones we know, is not without its problems. On the way back to Nazareth, Mary and Joseph realize that the twelve-year-old Jesus is missing. After three days of searching (they must have been desperate and frantic!), his parents find him still in the temple discussing the law with the teachers.
When he is confronted by Mary, Jesus expresses his need to be about his "Father's business." It sounds like the early rebellion of teenage years, but it's also a foreshadowing of the purpose that will lead to his death and resurrection. He will confront these elders again eighteen years hence and call them to a more personal response to God. He will be leaving his family of birth to share his good news with the entire family of humankind. That will come later; but for now, Luke gives us a glimpse of how Jesus, Mary, and Joseph lived their family life, their faith, and their love.
As the text tells us, "then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them" (v. 51). Jesus returns to the holy family and the keeping of laws and customs. Would that it were that easy with all pre-teens and teenagers!
This odd story provides us a picture of a holy family on a pilgrimage. They received from God, they offered thankful obedience in return, and they honored their faith and traditions, despite the difficulties they encountered.
Jesus is born into a family at Christmas—a human family, with all of its trials. Jesus is also born into a heavenly family, whose divine Parent too makes certain demands.
This story of the struggle of our Lord with allegiance to his human family and his divine family reminds us that we too have dual familial loyalties. We too are born into a human family and a divine family. Both need attention; each makes its demands.
The holy family into which we are born by baptism, and whose heavenly Father we share with Jesus, bridges every possible human obstacle—time, distance, disaffection, life, death, principalities, powers, height, depths, and anything else I all creation. As Paul says in the passage my mind shifted to as I considered possible obstacles, "Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:39).
This all makes me exceedingly thankful for my human family and for you here at St. Thomas who make up the counterpart of my nuclear family in the family of God. And I consider this text one that calls us to value as highly as we are able both sides of our family life.
In this context, we stand close to both sacred and secular events. Our divine family is only two days past one of the highest of holy day celebrations. And our human family is soon to celebrate the turning of one year into another.
I found a poem that speaks to this confluence of events. It's called "Boxed."
I must admit to a certain guilt about stuffing the Holy Family
into a box
in the aftermath of Christmas.
It's frankly a time of personal triumph when,
each Advent's eve, I free them (and the others)
from a year's imprisonment
boxed in the dark of our basement.
Out they come, one by one,
struggling through the straw,
last year's tinsel still clinging to their robes.
Nevertheless, they appear,
ready to take their place again
in the light of another Christmas.
The Child is first
because he's the one I'm most reluctant to box.
Attached forever to his cradle, he emerges,
apparently unscathed from the time spent upside down
to avoid the crush of the lid.
His mother, dressed eternally in blue, still gazes adoringly,
in spite of the fact that her features are somewhat smudged.
Joseph has stood for eleven months,
holding valiantly what's left of his staff,
broken twenty Christmases ago by a child who hugged
a little too tightly.
The Wise Ones still travel, though not quite so elegantly,
the standing camel having lost its back leg
and the sitting camel having lost one ear.
However, gifts intact, they are ready to move.
The shepherds, walking or kneeling,
sometimes confused with Joseph (who wears the same dull brown),
tumble forth, followed by three sheep in very bad repair.
There they are again, not a grand set surely,
but one the children (and now the grandchildren)
can touch and move about to re-enact that silent night.
When the others return, we will wind the music box
on the back of the stable,
and light the Advent candles and go once more to Bethlehem.
And this year, when it's time to pack the figures away,
we'll be more careful that the Peace and Goodwill
are not also boxed for another year!
Peace and good will. Hope and joy. The family gifts of Christmas continue to be real and present to us on this, the third day of the twelve days of Christmas. And they will not cease to be real and present gifts in a few days, when we begin a new year according to the way our human family keeps track of time. Nor will they cease on Twelfth Night, January 6th, when our divine family observes the official end of Christmas and the arrival of the Wise Men at Bethlehem.
Even when our most immediate and lasting experiences are ones of pain, suffering, captivity, and exile, as they were for the family of Israel caught in the Babylon Exile, peace and goodwill, hope and joy are real and present. Even in times of trouble, the family is called to better things by their prophets and priests. The Word of the Lord is the power of hope and life.
As we spend time in this space between our human and divine family events, we're given an opportunity to reassess our personal patterns and our various family traditions—eliminating some, establishing others, composing fresh songs of praise around the renewed mercies of God.
At the cusp of a new year, it's easy to imagine that time is merely cyclical and that what has gone before will be repeated yet again. We begin to hear and see the media summaries of this past year—dwelling on persons such as Michael Jackson and Barack Obama and reminding us of the good and the bad.
But we need far more than this recounting of our early family's story. We need at least as much, to be immersed in the divine story of God's love shown splendidly in coming to be among us. We need a vision that reminds us who we are. We need the stories of God's faithfulness and steadfast love, so that we don't lose our grounding for the one foot that treads in God's kingdom.
As we near the year's end, we are mindful of both families—of both the good and the bad, the actions that have led to greater and to lesser love, forgiveness, peace, and hope. We need to recognize, with Jesus, that while some may assume that the human side is all there is, we live also in the house of the Lord.
"Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" In the coming year, may we live as fully here as we do in the human house.
And withal, may we, along with our Lord, continue to increase in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor. Amen.
May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus our Lord unto eternal life. Amen.