The Feast of the Holy Family Rev. Canon Douglas E. Williams, December 29th, 2013.
From this morning’s Gospel, quoting the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”1 In the Catholic traditions, the first Sunday after Christmas is observed as the Feast of the Holy Family. But this morning’s Gospel should warn us that this is not a day of gushy sentimentality. There is very little to be sentimental about in Christmastime. Of course, nowadays there is very little about Christmas in Christmastime. But don’t get me wrong. I’m not about to launch into a tirade about “the war being waged against Christmas”, or any such nonsense. All that has happened in our day is that the secular society has stopped pretending that the mid-Winter selling marathon has anything to do with Christmas. And for that we should be grateful. Originally, in the ancient Roman Empire, the mid-Winter festival was focused on the Winter solstice. In early calendars, December 25th was the date of the solstice. In the first couple of centuries after Christ, the Church kept very few annual observances. In the third century, after the liberation of the Church, Christians developed a number of anniversaries; among these was that of the birth of Christ. In the Roman Empire, the mid-Winter festival of Sol Invictus—the Invincible Sun—was a big deal. It was a festival to celebrate, on the shortest day of the year, the conviction that the sun would yet return in its full Summer glory, in spite of the appearances of Winter. That significance may have encouraged Christians to celebrate the birth of Christ on the same day. I have often suspected, however, that it was much more simply in order to give Christians an excuse for joining in on the great pagan festivities that were going on anyway. Eventually the Christians managed to dump old “Sol Invictus”, and for the last seventeen hundred years it has been predominantly a Christian holiday, nonetheless picking up along the way little pagan bits and pieces: mistletoe; Christmas trees; St. Nicholas—at first an actual third century Middle Eastern bishop—gradually turned into Santa Claus, complete with flying reindeer, including one with a bright red nose. But after seventeen centuries, the pagan festival seems to have won out. But it’s not even a good pagan festival now. It is simply the great mid-Winter retail festival, designed to shore up the economy by enlisting every method of modern persuasion to encourage all of us to spend as much as possible. Advertisers would have you believe that this is somehow related to the selfless giving of gifts, but I suspect 1
that honest statistics would show that a fair amount of the spending at this time of year, if not most of it, is simply people’s buying stuff for themselves at bargain prices. But far from lamenting the change to the “Holiday Season”, we Christians should be grateful that the Christmas label is being removed from this commercial orgy. It gives us the opportunity—if only we will have the courage to take it—to recover the celebration of the birth of Christ in its own right. And what would that look like? I’m not sure. We have been immersed for so long in this hybrid of Christian and pagan festivals that it is hard to shake ourselves clear of it. But this morning’s Gospel should help us to begin looking in new directions: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” One direct result of the birth of Christ was the slaughter of small children. Herod the king’s hold on power was sufficiently shaky that he was ruthless in safeguarding it. When the three Wise Men told him that they were looking for the “King of the Jews”, he saw that as an immediate threat. When his religious advisors told him that the tradition was that this King would come from the town of Bethlehem, Herod took no chances. He had all the boys under the age of two in the territory of Bethlehem slaughtered. If Jesus had not been born, or if the Wise Men had had the good sense to avoid Herod, those children would not have died. The Christmas story is not a sentimental journey with a chubby baby laid in a comfy manger full of fresh, clean straw, and choirs of angels singing Handel’s “Messiah”, and wide-eyed, washed and scrubbed, cleanshaven shepherd lads coming to gawk at all the farm animals kneeling respectfully in front of the babe. It is the story of a child conceived in morally dubious circumstances; his mother, having to travel at the end of her pregnancy through a conquered land, occupied by a foreign military who despised the local native peoples, giving birth in an animals’ shed without even a midwife; then having to flee soon after his birth into exile into a country hostile to people like him, leaving behind the slaughtered corpses of uncountable children; returning home after the death of a vicious tyrant, but unable to settle back in Bethlehem and having to move north to the backwater province of Galilee. The real Christmas story is a story that I suspect that people in the neighborhood here in the Downtown Eastside or along Commercial Drive could identify with far more easily than those in Shaughnessy or the Westside. But the Christmas story is also not just a hard luck story, designed to draw out our sympathy for oppressed peoples. The real Christmas story is the story of God. Not the story of a god like Zeus, coming down out of some Olympian heaven, to visit us poor creatures here on the earth. But the story of God, the source and creator of the universe; of God, who has always been here, in the depths of reality, creating us, holding us up, rejoicing with us in our joys, stricken with us in our agonies. The Christmas story is the story of the welling-up of God into this creation as one of us, but welling-up into the very broken and agonized world into which each of us was born and in which each of us has had to find our feet. The Christmas story is
not a children’s story. We must find ways to tell our children a little about it. But it is not a children’s story. And the story of the Holy Family, the family into which Christ was born, is not a children’s story. It is the story of a family giving birth in the shabbiest of circumstances, fleeing a murderous tyrant, living in exile as refugees, returning to an obscure, occupied province to live as natives despised by the colonial power. But apart from these circumstances, it is the story of a family, doing what families do: building up or tearing down the personality of the child; providing that first crucial contact with the human community, a community absolutely essential to our being human, but often so destructive of what we are as individual human beings. Half a century ago, when I was training for the priesthood and Freudian psychology was still in its heyday, I remember one psychologist saying, “Given how Jesus turned out, he must have had one heck of a mother.” The Christmas story is the story of God welling-up into the creation, to heal it from within, not to impose upon it from without. The story of the Holy Family is the story of three people—Joseph, Mary, and Jesus—who, in their lives together, would inescapably mold each other into shape. In the incarnation, God became human. In the Holy Family God became the human being that he would be. Just as each of us is inescapably there in our children and in our parents, so Joseph and Mary are inescapably there in Jesus, and he in them. No wonder the angel said to Mary, “All generations will call you blessed.” Or, as the psychologist said, “Jesus must have had one heck of a mother.”