THE HOLY FAMILY
It is the Christmas Court and Henry II has summoned his three sons, Geoffrey, Richard and John, together with his estranged wife, Eleanor, as well as his mistress Alice. They all dislike each other intensely but the King has teased them by saying that he will announce who his successor will be. Henry wants John, Eleanor favours Richard and Geoffrey, the only one with true monarchical intelligence, is disliked by them all.
They bicker and argue and after one particularly vicious exchange, in the play and film “The Lion in Winter” depicting the events, Eleanor turns to the audience/camera full on and says with an amused sigh; “Well, what family doesn’t have its’ problems?”
Ah, family life, it always seems to show its true colours at the most important times; births, baptisms and birthdays; weddings, anniversaries and funerals; and that stalwart theatrical set-piece where arguments thrive – Christmas!
Admittedly, for King Henry II and his sons it was a question of succession and who would wear the Crown, for us families who argue seem to find far more trivial things to disagree about.
‘The Turkey was over-cooked and the vegetables burned!’
‘You’re not really going to wear that old thing are you, what about that nice new jumper I bought you?’
‘Aw mum, dad, just a bit longer I’m about to reach level 32.’
I’m sure you can each add your own script to the reasons for family fall-outs. What always tends to happen is that after a month or so it seems too daft but no-one seems ready to breach the gap and make amends.
A few days before Christmas on the news there was an item about a project that would open its doors to feed the homeless and give them at least one nights sleep. They interviewed one man, probably in his mid-thirties and he said rather plaintively that he had not seen his parents for eighteen years and that they lived not half-a-mile from where he stood. He then looked down the camera lens and said “I hope you’re watching this Mum, Dad.”
Of course there was no clue as to what had brought about that man’s particular situation but it was quite disturbing to think a family were so close in one respect and yet, worlds’ apart in being together at Christmas and be a part of the most holy of family’s – the Christian Family.
All through the various elements that make up the Nativity story there is a thread of everyone taking up the responsibility which has been placed upon their shoulders.
Mary, a frightened young girl is told that although betrothed to Joseph she will bear a son by the Holy Spirit and call Him, Jesus.
Joseph, although only just taking on Mary as his betrothed, is to become father to God’s own Son and the family would be regarded as holy.
For both Mary and Joseph, the mystery of the Angel’s words had yet to be revealed and would be only in the fullness of time, nevertheless there was already a greater truth being fulfilled in them. They were, in a great leap of faith, hearing God’s words and the prophecies of centuries past and accepting their familial duty. There was a literal darkness that surrounded them when these visitations came to them and others in the ensuing days, but a common verse referring to the people who walked in darkness had seen a great light had now come to fruition and shone upon them.
The Shepherds and Kings from the East represented a different community – they were the family of humanity, people brought together by circumstance of their living, for the Shepherds, and a belief in the prophecy of the Star as seen by the Magi. There was a reliance and need for each other – the Shepherds were terrified at what they had seen and the Magi became travellers together across a vast expanse of wilderness. Both groups needed each other and became stronger in their resolve to see this thing that had happened.
Whether it was the first time I had noticed it or not, I don’t know, but one emotion seemed to be common to all, they all expressed fear of the whole experience they were to be involved in. Mary was afraid of the Angel’s pronouncement, Joseph was afraid to continue with his betrothal plans, the Shepherds were afraid of the heavenly host and the Kings were afraid to go back to Herod and were assured by an Angel to go return home, by another route.
Fear seems a strange common factor to unite these people and then regard them as family both intimately as well as an extended family and yet it was the fear of the unknown which did unite them ultimately in surrounding Jesus, the Son of God, with love, respect and honour.
In the early part of the Twentieth Century, a philosopher named Bertrand Russell a self-professed atheist wrote in a lecture entitled “Why I’m not a Christian”;
“Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown, and partly, as I have said, the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear is the basis of the whole thing—fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion has gone hand-in-hand.”
The lecture was written and delivered in 1927, nine years after the devastation of World War One and in a country still coming to terms with the loss of such numbers of people, a loss of faith in Governments and political ideals, and an almost complete loss of faith in a church compromised by its own stance in the chaos of war.
In one way, Russell was extrapolating the national feeling of despondency following the empty promises of both Church and State in the events before and years of the war – a sequence of doubts and fears that have a not dissimilar parallel a hundred years on. Whilst there may not be any apparent imminent threat of war, there has been for some time a lack of belief in the successive governments who have dragged this country through times of recession and the slow erosion of both the National Health and Social Welfare system which was once the model for the world. Similarly the chaos of revisionist liturgies and doctrines combined with the virtual collapse of the foundations for belief and faith in the Church, and primarily the Anglican Church now rife with factions and breakaway groups. christian items to wear of the wedding
We are, as Russell describes ‘a religion based mainly on the fear of the unknown’, but that is exactly what the Holy Family, in every sense, is based upon the ‘fear of the unknown’. But for the Christian Family, the unknown is made known through the Incarnation and the bringing together of the various characters within the Nativity story. The unknown was made known through the Incarnation – ‘and the word was made flesh and dwelt among us’. The fear of religion can overwhelm us at times, from Moses to Peter they all experienced a fear of the Lord, but God’s teaching is based upon His love for humanity and it follows that our fears can be turned to joy by expressing our faith in God.
Mary, Joseph and the Shepherds, primarily, by expressing their faith in God’s word went out praising God and letting others share in their joy – a family, as one, complete in their acceptance of the Angels’ words and God’s wishes for them.
While politicians run around like headless chickens trying to sort out the political turmoil and chaos of the past two years and no doubt try to resolve the next few months, perhaps the church, whether as a whole, or just we as a community could learn from the Holy Family and teach others. There will always be times when a community wanders and strays about in a sort of spiritual wilderness – but recognition of that often becomes the incentive to harness our collective faith and become a beacon of faith for others to draw close to and join us. Likewise a community that shows strength in its belief and pursuance to love God and one another, shows a strength far greater than a community divided against itself.
A family has both individual and a collective responsibility to work together, pray as one and exemplify Christ’s teaching by which this community shall be known. In a Gospel reading for a weekday mass just before Christmas Jesus referred to everyone who does His will becomes His mother, father, brother and sister, we are a family as a community and we are a family in God’s name, to whom be glory, now and forever. Amen