For me, one memorable newspaper Boxing Day cartoon was a cartoon of the wise men returning from Bethlehem, passing an advertising hoarding giving the latest discounts offered on Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. There was a speech bubble from one of the wise men saying –“ I told you we should have waited for the Boxing Day sales”. One thing that has always intrigued me about Christmas is the speed with which the world turns from the celebration of Christmas to other things. This year I noticed that even on Christmas Eve the TV ads included the specials that were coming in the Boxing Day sales.
I know Christmas is important for many and traditionally Christmas day sees some in the pews who would not normally think of attending Church. At one service, one man greeted me with, “Remember me – I was here last Christmas” and I suspect he was not alone. Yet last year, I seem to remember that the “Tidings of great joy” message was essentially the same. After hearing all the stories of the angels, the heavenly choir and the shepherds and wise men joining Mary and Joseph around the manger that first Christmas, a cynic may even wonder why with all that miraculous fanfare, surely everyone should know the Messiah had arrived… but more to the point … why hasn’t it made more of a difference to what we now do?
Yet that cynicism maybe more a reaction to what we have done with Christmas with all our current religious and Hollywood add-ons because even the symbolic birth stories in Matthew and Luke and the stories of subsequent biography suggested in the gospel records all seem grounded in human realities. Don’t get me wrong. I like Christmas very much – but in terms of thinking about Jesus, the very early Church, by acknowledging Jesus’ life story as fact –yet not having a special day for Christmas almost seems more logical than what happens today. We might reflect the early Church got on well without Christmas in that the earliest gospels made no mention of the event, and although the Armenian Church was the first in the third century to give Christ’s birth a date (not 25 December), it wasn’t until the fourth century that the Roman Church took over the existing Pagan festival of light – when the winter days began to lengthen – and appropriated it as December 25, the Day to celebrate Christ’s mass.
Certainly there is poetry and even fantasy in the communication of the part of the gospel message dealing with Christ’s birth, in the same way as hymn writers and liturgists ever since use every skill at their disposal to convey feeling and emotion in a response to Christ, but we would do well to remember that Jesus was also portrayed as fully human and fully vulnerable, in the same way as we too have our learning to achieve and temptations to overcome.
I can understand the church evolving a style of worship to heighten the sense of awe and mystery whereby robes and religious trappings such as richly embroidered cassocks and stoles and ornate bishop’s mitres and other badges of office set aside the leaders, while the places of worship convey a message that they too are set aside for special purpose with their candles and ornate carvings and stained glass windows. I suspect the present Pope’s discomfort with the trappings of religion is partly a recognition that the multi-layers of pomp and circumstance have elevated the original gospel message from a baby born into humble beginnings to a point where it no longer connects with common human concerns.
Have you noticed the irony that in the Sundays following Christmas, as the next stage of Jesus life is laid out making it ever more obvious as to what Jesus represents, is played to half empty Churches
Certainly in last week’s lectionary reading the priest Simeon and the faithful Anna appeared to have noticed something very significant, yet even if Jesus was showing early signs of greatness, this presentation at the Temple was only one of a number of events which needed to occur before Jesus would be ready to embark on his ministry. This then suggests a lack of completion in Jesus’ development at this early stage. We can well believe that there was much that his parents and those who contributed various guiding influences on his life would have needed to do in those formative years. But don’t miss noticing Luke is specific. As he puts it: Jesus grew in strength and wisdom. There is a message in this reading that can be encountered at different levels.
First Jesus needing to prepare himself for a number of years before starting his ministry suggests a humanity which does not quite match the assertion that Jesus was God incarnate from the word go. Jesus growing in wisdom is not quite the same as power incarnate. Remember too, prior to his ministry, Jesus would find himself facing temptations in the wilderness, seeking baptism – and this from John the Baptist, who far from instantly recognising his cousin as God’s son needed further confirmation of Jesus status. Post-baptism Jesus was reportedly not readily recognised by his disciples when accompanied by them for months at a time is clearly not the equivalent of a God who is an integral part of the formation of entire galaxies which suggests that we should be very careful in what we mean when we talk of the Son of God.
If you were assembling a biography of Jesus it might occur to you to wonder just how many people it took, firstly to help him prepare for his mission and secondly to interpret his mission to successive generations.
As he did in last-weeks lectionary reading about Mary and Joseph at the Temple with Simeon and Anna, Luke is also stressing for us the importance of the temple and in effect paying tribute to those like Simeon’s wisdom in the context of Jesus’ dedication at the Temple and those like Anna whose faith is steadfast and focussed on worship in the temple as she awaits the one she is sure will come.
Purification of Mary and dedication of Jesus may lack the imagery of the birth stories but nevertheless is a key to understanding the care that presumably went into Jesus’ preparation. It is particularly appropriate to consider this passage at New Year, because what is a dedication other than a promise of a deliberate intention. New Year resolutions are almost a standing joke in Western culture. How many intentions to give up smoking, to lose weight, to cut down on the alcohol, to develop a lean athletic figure, to….. and here place your particular favourites – all those resolutions which so often turn to dust. And yet I honestly believe the resolutions are important. Yes I know that many are unrealised and clearly many of those amazing exercise machines we see on infomercials finish up unused in the garage sales yet without the resolution to dedication, how else would any change begin.
I know in many of our Churches branches of Alcoholics Anonymous meet. Having personal family experience of a one relative who did not succeed in weaning himself off alcohol and who finally committed suicide I asked one of the chief organisers what proportion of the AA attendees who succeed and was told probably less than 10%…. and yet here is the important point, those who do succeed have made a tremendous change to their lives – and it is a change which in all probability would not have happened without the support of others.
I have never subscribed to the view that just anyone could have reached Jesus’ full potential. Scientific study of behaviour has now taught us that part of our potential and propensity to certain gifts and style of behaviour is part of our genetic make-up. Recent research for example showed that a psychotic criminal has a brain which is structurally different and which has a different electrical and chemical pattern of operation. Anyone for example who has had contact with a child who is severely autistic will know just how difficult it is to re-programme such a mind. The same goes for a wide range of behaviour type. Which side of the brain is dominant in movement programmes us to be left or right handed. Whether or not for example we have a propensity for homosexual or heterosexual behaviour is now known to be a consequence of genetics as well as environmental factors. It is certainly true that those with the inbuilt capacity for talent can have these gifts fostered by applied intelligence and directed encouragement, but if the part of the brain which is required is damaged or absent, the gift is bound to be limited. The most obvious illustration is the mental impairment which sometime accompanies a stroke.
However, the environmental influence is still of critical importance. Children who show extraordinary talent whether it be in music, maths, science or even in ability to interact positively with those around them have almost invariably received appropriate encouragement. Since Jesus is no longer with us in a physical sense, perhaps we might do well to remember that it is not Jesus but those who have the potential to carry on his message and work who will need similar encouragement to develop the gifts which will be required before others can be successful in mission.
That the Temple is central to Luke’s thinking at this point in his narrative may be partly because he was writing his account years after the event but shortly after the destruction of the temple which would have been seen by Luke and many of his contemporaries as a unmitigated disaster. In today’s reading Luke go on to record the temple as the setting for Jesus first sign of ministry where he will be found at the temple talking with Church leaders (“in my father’s house”). The story of him clearing the temple later reinforces how the gospel writer feels the Temple ought to be respected.
So where does this leave us today? The Temple – or in our case the Church has perhaps drifted from its original focus…and diminishing numbers of followers show that like the Temple in Jesus day our Churches are seen to be losing relevance. The religious reflection for Christmas is done with enthusiasm in our Churches – yet there is always a danger of so elevating the Christ child in our thinking and in our style of celebration and worship that his message and more importantly our part in using and spreading the message is somehow submerged in the glitter and mystery. The gospel tells how Jesus needed to find his way in his religion as today we must do for ourselves.
I would like to suggest that there is a parallel between his parents struggling to understand and support Jesus. We too need to first recognise in one another the potential for being the Christ in our world and then to support one another in the fulfilment of our potential, which is surely as real as it was back then. The weeks after Christmas are just as important in its time of dedication as Christmas itself. Maybe in this sense the New Year resolutions may take us forward in the days to come.