A reflection on Christmas, the New Year and the Church family
Based on a sermon preached at St Mary’s Marlborough
on the First Sunday of Christmas
Following earlier thoughts and reflections on Advent, Christmas and the New Year
On this first Sunday after Christmas, in many churches, the Holy Family is the central theme. There are times in the Church year when we remember Mary and Joseph individually, but this day we are invited to think about them as a family. What struck me a couple of years ago, when reflecting on this theme, is how Joseph, despite not being Jesus biological father, is fully given this father-role in Scripture and tradition. Joseph, as foster-parent or adoptive parent is not only taking the responsibility as Jesus’ father, but is also treated as such. For me, this is already an early sign that God in Jesus embraces all complexities of human life, including the complexities of family life.
We all know that family life is not always straightforward. Especially around this time of the year, when many celebrate the joys of seeing relatives, for others the pain of what is not is felt more than any other time. And, I guess, for most of us, it is a combination of the two: of pain and joy, of a sense of loss and a sense of immense gratitude.
Sometimes we may feel that it is better to try to forget about what hurts, to forget about what is not there or what is no longer there, so that we may not be overwhelmed. But I think today we are reminded that we are not to forget the past, but give it its appropriate place. To remember with joy and gratitude what has been good, and to acknowledge and forgive that which hasn’t been, or the wrong that has been done. And all these things are maybe even more pertinent when it comes to our families, those closest to us.
An important aspect of the Christian view on family life that it is something to be shared with others. It was already on the first Christmas night that shepherds came to visit Joseph and Mary to see the child lying in a manger: complete strangers were invited to share in the intimacy of that night.
Sometimes we can be too focussed on ourselves and the small circle of close family, and friends for that matter, around us. Maybe at times that is appropriate, but maybe at times it is not.
I was talking to one of the volunteers at the Christmas lunch in the Marlborough Town Hall last week. He was explaining how every year they have more volunteers than they actually need. Fortunately, this person recognised that in this case there are never more volunteers than you can use! Instead of turning people away, the effort was made to make sure that everyone who wanted felt that they could contribute. So often we forget that we all deep down would like to be part of something, to make a contribution. And turning it around, the people who enjoyed their lunch, actually made this possible. If all of them had been too anxious or too proud to come along, then indeed, there would have been too many volunteers.
It shows us that whenever we share of ourselves, whether it is in joy or sadness, when we give of ourselves, we receive too. When we share our joy, it increases, and when we dare to share our sorrow, we often become aware of the support and comfort around us. But for that to happen, we need to truly open ourselves, make ourselves vulnerable, and be ready to have a real encounter, which is as much about the other as it is about ourselves.
Around this time of Christmas and New Year’s celebrations, when we hear the stories of others, they may particularly resonate with our own story and it can be hard not to be moved to tears ourselves. Yet, after such an encounter, I usually come away with a sense of gratitude, a sense of belonging to one another, a sense of being part of something greater, a sense of being part of not only my own story, but God’s story.
Today we stand on the threshold of a new year, and so many of us will be thinking about new beginnings. Just as God began something new in Jesus, it was also the continuation of his promise of redemptive love. So also our new beginnings will be a continuation of what has gone before us: honouring the past and giving it its appropriate place. Through celebration and forgiveness, through recognition and reconciliation making place to look forward.
Live like a child of God. Knowing that God will embrace you when life is complex, difficult or painful, and knowing that He will rejoice with you when you have found something of great value. Knowing also that we are all brothers and sisters in that faith: despite our quarrels and disagreements, we share something immensely precious, given to us by God himself: the gift of life, the gift of ourselves and each other.
That is something to celebrate and that is something to share. It is why we worship together, share our stories, the story of God with us in Scripture. It is why we share bread and wine, to celebrate together all the good we have been given, the good news of God with us.
So let us keep sharing ourselves and that good news also in the year to come. Let us continue to be committed to live as God’s family here on earth. And so let us recognise the opportunities, forgive ourselves and others when we fall short, and rejoice that God became on of us, so that we may be more like him.