Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!


Holy Family
December 30, 2012, 11:18 am
Filed under: Sermons

A sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton, Sunday 30th December 2012

holy familyOn this Sunday after Christmas, we think about the Holy Family of Bethlehem and Nazareth, and about family life in general. In Jesus, Mary and Joseph we see as it were a paradigm of family life, as the Creator intends it to be. In many ways, it turns upside down our usual ways of thinking. For a start, by speaking of Jesus, Mary and Joseph we reverse the usual order of father, mother and child. Conventionallt, the father is “head of the household”, the most important person. His wife’s duty is to defer to him, and the child is supposed to obey his or her parents. In the Holy Family, it is clear that the most important person is the child- who is indeed God-among-us, Emmanuel. In Christian devotion, Mary our Lady comes second, and Joseph comes a poor third, if he is thought about at all. In some of the ancient carols and nativity plays he is almost a figure of fun: “Joseph was an old man, and an old man was he.” An old man with a very young wife is always someone to snigger at.

There is nothing in the Gospels to support this view, and modern television and film versions usually present him as a young man, walking vigorously beside Mary on her donkey, even rescuing her when she falls into a river. Just as unscriptural, but certainly more heroic. Joseph is one of my heroes and role-models, because he understood and accepted the vocation God had given him, and did his utmost to fulfil it. This vocation was nothing less than to teach the Son of God from his example what fatherhood should be, as he grew into the understanding that God himself was his Father, and taught us in turn that we too are the children of the same Father.

Of course, in the Holy Family the Child is the central figure: but in the Christian thinking about marriage and family life, the child (or children) should always be at the centre. Marriage is for children, parents are for children, not the other way about. This has a basis in nature. In the age-old process of evolution, from dinosaurs to Dawkins, the individual exists in order to reproduce, and so continue the species. That’s life- literally! Human nature adds to this, but it does not subtract. The essential characteristic of humanity, as the Bible teaches, is that we are made in the image of God: with both the freedom and the responsibility that this dignity brings with it.

Marriage, in God’s scheme, is not primarily about two individuals in isolation, wishing to share their livesand declare their mutual love, but with children only as a possible, but essentially optional, extra. Marriage is the consecration of two persons to parenthood, wherein those who will in the course of nature give their own substance to create a new image of God, pledge themselves to continually cherish and watch over that living image until it is able to take on the responsibility for itself. Accidents and mismanagement happen, whereby a child may be deprived of one or more of its natural parents: but that is not and never should be the norm.

The birth of Christ was unique, in that Mary alone was the natural human parent of her Son. Christ could not have two fathers. But Joseph was necessary, because in the natural order mothers should have the support of husbands, and children should experience what in the ordinary way must biologically be the case- that they have both a male and a female progenitor. We each have a double genetic inheritance, a DNA code derived half from our father and half from our mother. In the unique circumstances of the Incarnation of God, Joseph did not contribute to the DNA of Jesus, but he was a constant presence to protect and guide him. “Jesus went down to Nazareth and was obedient to them.” He learned that obedience, ultimately to God, which one day would become obedience even unto death. He also learned from Joseph that to be head of the family is in fact to be its servant, to do everything for the welfare of the others, wife and children alike.

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