The Holy Family
Sermon preached by
There is not a detailed account of the family life of Joseph, Mary and Jesus in the Gospels but with the help of the hints we find in them, together with the research of archaeologists and Bible scholars, we can piece together quite a lot about them. For example, we can tell from the reading we just heard, that they were not a very prosperous family, otherwise they would have sacrificed a lamb in the Temple rather than going for the cheaper option of a pair of doves. Some scholars have recently suggested that far from being of very humble origin, Joseph might have been the ancient equivalent of a master builder, with people working for him. This argument is hotly disputed, especially by people who are wedded to the idea of Jesus coming from a very humble background.
Throughout history, Christians have imagined the family life of Our Lord in very much the mould of the ideal family. Victorian pictures of the early life of Jesus are, to our eyes, slightly absurd. Jesus is meek and mild, and instead of having Semitic features, he is often shown as having blond curly hair. Mary, in Victorian art is typically so gentle-looking as to appear almost afraid of her husband. But of course perfection, or rather the ideal of perfection changes over time. In the post -feminist era, we would think that an underfed, frail looking Mary was too male dominated and mighty want a more capable-looking, feisty Mother of our Lord. The truth is of course that we don’t know what Mary looked like, and there are only a few tantalising clues as to what the family relationships were like in Joseph’s household.
The Gospels mention the existence of a number of brothers and sisters born after Jesus. But their existence has been, since the 4th century, discounted by those who venerate Mary as completely and eternally pure. St Jerome, among others, argued that James, Joseph, Simon and Jude, were really his half-brothers, or cousins or spiritual brothers. But perhaps we have missed something by ignoring the Gospel mention of Jesus’ large family? Perhaps Jesus was enriched by experiencing the rough and tumble of family life? We can have no doubt that there was great love between the members of Jesus’ family, since His brothers stayed by him to the end, and one of them, James, took up the leadership of part of the Christian movement after the Crucifixion. We know too, that Mary stayed by her Son in his dying agony on the Cross. That she remained faithful and brave. We know that Jesus loved her deeply and as He died remained concerned for her welfare by putting her into the care of one of His disciples.
But down the centuries, the belief that the Holy Family conformed to some impossible ideal of non-sexual marriage has been used to denigrate normal marriage and sexuality. The ideal of virginity has led to women being reviled for conforming to their normal biological instincts and the urge towards motherhood.
In recent years we have come to see that Jesus’ childhood was far from being the perfection of settled order that the Victorians believed. The Gospels tell us that Joseph was forced to take his family away from their own people and hide in Egypt, to escape the violent hatred of Herod. When at length they felt safe to leave Egypt they did not return to Judea but stayed in the Galilee district. Joseph and his family were what we would now call refugees, moving around, searching for a secure place to raise his Son and other children. Doesn’t this change our perspective about today’s refugees, when we consider that God chose to place His chosen Son, not in the security of a rabbi's family in Jerusalem, or in a Roman general’s palace but in the care of a refugee who was forced to do his best by his family and to improvise a living where he could ?
Of course what we believe or don’t believe about Jesus’ childhood and early life is unimportant compared to His adult ministry and teaching. The sheer power of Jesus’ message burns down the centuries, challenging and inspiring us. His living presence in the lives of His believers gives testimony to His enduring power to transform our lives as He has countless others over the centuries. But the few brief examples I have given reminds us that humans have the ability to wilfully ignore important details from the Gospels, while choosing to emphasise things that they wish were in them.
We must stick to looking at what Jesus did say, rather than making Him over in our own image, and putting into His mouth things that He did not say! The dividing line between religious error and religious truth is a narrow one and difficult to observe.
If scholars, theologians, ministers and laity do not continually measure what they believe about Jesus with what the Gospels actually say, then it is possible for human-made error, bigotry and evil to creep into the faith. We all know to our shame how the name of Christ was used to defend the actions of the Crusaders in their attacks on Islam. We know to our horror that people who worked in the death camps could still worship in churches on Sundays.
Jesus himself warned that there were people who could strain at a gnat and swallow a camel, (Matthew 23) and what did He mean but that devout people would and could miss the true message of the Kingdom by obsessing over details? He said that people must be aware of seeing the splinter in the eyes of others while carrying huge beams of imperfection themselves! And it isn’t surprising that we Christians would rather dwell on other people's sins rather than our own!
How much more fun to gang up on minorities of any kind than attend to your own failings! How much easier to attack someone else’s sexuality, than to try and curb your own instinct to be greedy, lustful or hypocritical.
Christians have always had a tendency to want to burn witches, rather than listen to Jesus proclaiming forgiveness. But the focus for external evil changes, in medieval Europe it was Jews, in Spain the Moors, in Victorians England, it was the fallen woman and in our own time what ? For some it is gay people, for others, Islam.
We have to attend to the evil within ourselves, to be mindful of our own bigotry, malice and sin before we can safely pronounce on what Jesus feels about the sins of other people.