Sunday, 29 December 2013

Feast of the Holy Family, Shaftesbury

Mt 2:13-15.19-23
We keep today a beautiful feast, that of ‘The Holy Family’. Having celebrated, just a few days ago at Christmas, the birth of the Lord as a baby, we now recall the life of that perfect family: St Joseph, Our Lady, and the child Jesus.
We know it wasn’t a typical family:
the child was the Lord God Almighty Himself in human form;
the mother was sinless from the first moment of her existence, the ‘Immaculate Conception’;
and even St Joseph was a ‘saint’ –so not exactly run-of-the-mill either.
But even though it was not a TYPICAL family it is put before as THE ‘normal’ one because of the example of Christian living, and Christian FAMILY living, that it lays before us.

I’d like, this year, to focus on the figure of St Joseph, in part because this year’s Gospel places him before us more than the other years, but also,
because placing the father before our focus is something that might, in itself, be notable as being rather counter-cultural for us today in that our post-Christian society: Our society has increasingly made fathers an optional part of family life –even though repeated studies have shown that children grow up differently, more healthily, if their fathers are around.
A man and a woman, a husband and a wife, each bringing something different and yet complementarily, so that the two together form one whole, committed to each other for life, looking to bring for a life beyond their own –this what we see in Our Lady and St Joseph, their common love and life ordered towards the child they bring into the world.

All this would sound sexist, maybe patriarchal, to many in our modern world.
So, let us consider two things about the form of leadership that St Joseph offers, because it’s the very opposite of what feminist critiques of patriarchy condemn:
First let us note that St Joseph is a man who LISTENS:
There are three big decisions that the Gospels record him making, and in each case he does not do what HE wants, but what he is told to do –told by an angel:
(1) He takes Our Lady home as his wife, despite her not being pregnant with his child;
(2) He flees to Egypt to avoid Herod’s slaughter of the infants –because this is what the angel tells him to do;
(3) He returns from Egypt –again, in obedience to the angel.

Second, let us note that St Joseph is a man who is never recorded as having ever said ANYTHING. He isn’t recorded as being mute, so he presumably spoke, but it somehow seems more characteristic of him to be DOING things, not talking:
taking them to Bethlehem,
taking them to Egypt,
returning them to Israel.
NOT running around bossing and telling other people what to do.

So, as we today celebrate the feast of the Holy Family, and think about how they can be a role model for modern families, let us think in particular what St Joseph shows us:
A family in which there is LISTENING rather than self-assertion is a family capable of being open to God’s will, capable of being loving and happy, capable of bringing Christ into the world.

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Christmas, Shaftesbury

I've been to the post office rather a lot recently, going to get stamps to post my Christmas cards. And I've had to go there so many times because Shaftesbury post office hasn't had stamps. I went there with a huge pile of cards, only to be told that they didn't have any foreign stamps, and didn't have any second class stamps, that they hadn't had any for over two weeks, and they didn't know when they would get any in.
I was tempted to get ANGRY and demand to know what a post office was for if not for posting things,
and to demand to know how on earth Cousin Doky in Iowa was going to get her card?!!
But, actually, I didn't get angry. I was very polite. I was very English. I just said, "Oh dear. I'll just have to come back another time”.

But what struck me as significant was the fact that the post office still somehow was BUSY.
Now, a post office is for posting things. And yet, somehow, even when they can't do that, they somehow stay busy with other stuff, selling decorations, cello tape etc
And I though that church can be like that too, and you as Christian families can be like that too.
We can fail to have the thing that makes us what we are, the loving Christ-child, and yet stay busy with other churchy or Christmassy things.

So, what is Christmas like without the core, without Jesus Christ?
Busy. There is still turkey. Still presents to be found, and bought, and wrapped. Still cards to be sent (if you can get stamps).
But without Christ, it doesn’t have a MEANING, it doesn’t have it’s purpose.
It becomes a celebration of His birth that forgets the One who was born.

And, of course, we can also lose Christ at Christmas by a lack of love.
He came from heaven to earth because He loves us, because He wishes to save us.
Yet, we can have the celebration without love.
Eating turkey, but not being kind,
Gathering with family, but not patient and forgiving.
We can be like the post office: busy, but not busy with what it is supposed to be about.

In contrast, Christmas WITH Christ is a very different affair.
It remembers Christ, remembers the One who gives meaning to it all:
That the Lord God Almighty, in His infinite love for each and every one of us, formed a plan long ago:
He promised it at the dawn of creation, that the Son of Eve would crush the head of the serpent (Gen 3:15).
He called and formed a Chosen People to be the place of His birth.
He prophesied it through the lips of His many prophets that they might be ready.
And then, finally, God entered His world, as one of us, out of love for us.
And He still comes to us today, to hearts willing to receive Him.

And our celebration of that, at Christmas: If we let what we believe inspire our actions then it becomes a beautiful sight:
If we are patient and laugh when Uncle Bert tells us joke, again, that isn’t very funny -just as the Lord was patient in planning for His birth.
If we are forgiving with little faults and failing as the Lord came to forgive us and die for us on the Cross.
If we are loving as Christ loved us enough to be poor and humble, born in the stable.
Then we will have the CORE of what Christmas is about: the loving Christ-child.
A celebration with meaning, and activity with its core purpose,
something even better than a post office with stamps.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

4th Sunday of Advent, Year A, Shaftesbury

Mt 1:18-24; Isa 7:10-14
We have just 3 days to go now before Christmas, and so we’re in our final stage of preparation: both physically and in the Church’s liturgy.
This Sunday, the final one before Christmas, the Church always turns our focus to Our Lady, to look to her to help us bring the Christ-child into our lives. But this year, Year A in the 3-year lectionary, we also have the figure of St Joseph. And both of them give us simple but vital examples of what we must do, what we must be like, if we are to let Christ in this Christmas.
I’d like to point out, in particular, the way that the two of them behaved towards each other.

First, St Joseph. As we heard in that account, he found out that Our Lady was “with child” –and not by him. As any of us can imagine, that would have been a tough thing for him to take.
I’d like to point out his forgiving and tolerant response to this. He could have sent her away in public disgrace, but he “wanted to spare her publicity” and so was going to do so “informally” (Mt 1:19).

Second, Our Lady. Let us note that she doesn’t seem to make any great deal of justifying herself before St Joseph. Defending ourselves, self-justification, are common human actions, often linked with selfishness in how we seek to defend our honour.
But Lady takes another path, and the Lord steps in for her before St Joseph, just as the Lord had stepped in to ask her to receive the child.

Thirdly, ourselves. Christmas, and family and other personal interactions, can sadly be time of the opposite of what we just heard.
In frayed tempers over organising things with others,
in mistakes that we make,
in the little things in which people let us down,
we can be unforgiving and self-justifying:
“It wasn’t ME who forgot to buy the Brussels sprouts…”
“It’s not my fault the shop was out of sprouts –you should have reminded me beforehand!”
[Apparently a recent TV show and survey showed that nobody actually likes Brussels sprouts away, we just eat them at Christmas because it’s traditional. Regardless…]

So, let’s remember in these days ahead to be like Our Lady, and not be overly keen seek to justify ourselves before others in our various failings;
And to be like St Joseph, and be forgiving and tolerant of what seem to be the faults of others –for one thing, maybe there are explanations we don’t know about, just as St Joseph found.

And if we do that, then we can expect to find that for us too, “the maiden [will be] with child”(Isa 7:14) and a child will be born for us, Emmanuel, ‘God is with us’.