Christmas families

Sermon preached by Rev’d Dr Emma Pennington at St Mary’s Garsington and St Giles’ Horspath on 30th December 2018.

Readings: 1 Samuel 2:18-20,26 and Luke 2:41-52.

The story has swiftly moved on in our gospel reading this morning.  Gone are the angels, the shepherds, the wise men, and adorable babies, instead we have a boy of twelve years old.  The action may have changed but essentially we are still in the Christmas spirit, as our readings are all about families.


The first book of Samuel tells the touching story of Hannah, Samuel’s mother who sees her son but once a year to bring him a new liturgical robe, an ephod which she has made for him.  I wonder whether the blessing she receives for her ‘gift’ is for the robe or for the greater gift of her child.  The account is sparse and we have none of the drama and interaction played out in our gospel reading, but the passage still resonates with experiences we all recognise: the simple acts of love and the heartache of separation.  In many ways Luke uses this account of the boy Samuel’s life in the Temple as a basis for his depiction of the events which took place in Jerusalem when Jesus was twelve.  The biggest difference however, is that Samuel spends day and night there, whereas Jesus visits it only once, otherwise he was at home and brought up just like any other first century peasant boy would have been.  His name is not even remarkable.  Jesus was as common a name in those days as John or Smith is to us.  We know very little about Jesus’ life as a boy, perhaps because there was nothing of note to say.  He lived in Nazareth with his parents and brothers and sisters and learnt his father’s trade as was expected of him.  He simply lived family life.


For most people, that is what Christmas is all about, families: getting together, sharing gifts, eating and talking, visiting those members of the family who we don’t often see, sending out Christmas cards to aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews, people we never see and wracking the brain to try and remember how many children so-and-so has, let alone their names.  Christmas programmes are full of the warmth of family life, the desire to include everyone in this embrace of love, over and above the desolation of loneliness.  And yet for many, these images and messages of family at Christmas heap scolding ashes on wounds of isolation and grief at the loss of a loved one.  I always find it very moving how the churchyard at Garsington is transformed into a sea of wreaths, flowers and lights by an endless stream of people who come to graves to reach out to those who will not be seated around their Christmas family dinner.    Before we get too idealistic, we also have to remember that this too is the time of year when most murders take place, between family members.  Not everyone has the perfect family life and even for the most ordinary and amicable of relationships there can be a little sense of relief when you get into the car and head for home.  I don’t know what it is about this time of year, but somehow it can so easily show up the cracks and put strain on the very best of families.  Maybe, it’s the weight of trying to live up to the Christmas ideal.


Of course, in the absence of any information about Jesus’ early life, or any of his life, except the two years of his ministry at the age of 30, the Holy Family is often imagined as being the epitome of that ideal.  We have sung about it this Christmas.  In that most loved of carols Once in Royal David City Christian children are all bidden to be ‘mild, obedient, good as he’.  C.F. Alexander who wrote the carol in 1818 simply expressed that good Victorian notion that Jesus, who humbled himself to share our earthly life, must have exhibited in the purest form the life of virtue from the year he was born and so never cried or got cross or was beset by those troublesome two’s.  I’m not sure we buy that image of Jesus these days.  In fact we have become suspicious when such an ideal is presented to us.  I have just started reading Henry James’ Turn of the Screw, in good Victorian Christmas Eve tradition of hearing a ghost story.  If you know the ending please don’t tell me, but I’m not convinced that the angelic children Flora and Miles need protecting from evil, in fact I have a hunch that its them who are playing a horrifyingly manipulative game upon their trusting governess.


In the preface to his book Black Dogs Ian MacEwan gives his life history, which is not as rosy as one might imagine, instead it is one of a terrible childhood having lost his parents at the age of eight and a succession of failures.  It’s only when he came to have children of his own to love that he says this madness of abandonment came to an end.  In this statement I don’t think he is giving an idealized view of parenthood but rather is making a profound statement about how family life in all its complexity teaches us about what it means to love and to be loved.  Perfect children do not teach us about forgiveness and compromise, kindness and generosity.  Ideal families can so easily squash difference and acceptance playing out games of manipulative control.  It’s in the humdrum of our imperfect family life that we begin to learn about Love himself and the extent to which his presence within our families enables us to love each other.


It’s not for nothing that the church, those who respond to the call of the Christchild, are called a family.  In many ways our acts of love, our kindness, our forgiveness of each other, our tolerance and acceptance of difference is not masked by blood ties.  We can truly recognise that it is not from us that this love flows but from God and by it we reveal his love and through it we share in his divine life.  How sad it is then, that in many ways we who are the truest and best of families are often the most dysfunctional.  And yet I fear that the latter is only because we so easily forget who loved us first.  As we enter this New Year, let our prayer be that the church may once again rediscover its calling as the family of Love.  Amen.