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Canon Dr Christopher Collingwood (Chancellor)
Sunday 30 December 2018 – Sung Eucharist
1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26 Luke 2:41-52
As some of you may be aware, Sue and I have a new granddaughter. We met her for the first time in August, when she was just three weeks old. To do that, we had to travel to Jordan, where she was born, and where she lives with Andrew, our second son, and Dania, his wife, who’s half-Jordanian and half-Egyptian. We’ve had the delight of having them with us for Christmas and we’re all agreed that our granddaughter is the perfect embodiment of her name: Farah – ‘Joy’ in Arabic.
A newly-born baby’s full of promise, potential and possibility, and I find myself pondering in relation to Farah the question posed by the family of John, later to be dubbed ‘the Baptist’, when his parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, brought him to be circumcised: ‘What then will this child become?’ For them, as Luke recounts, the birth of their child was a sign of something new, mysterious and promising, a sign of God’s presence and activity among his people after what seemed like a long time of apparent absence. As I look at Farah, I marvel at her capacity to evoke feelings of sheer love by virtue of nothing more than the fact that she simply is, that she’s just there. Most mothers know what this is like. The love of a mother for her newly-born child isn’t wrenched out of her reluctantly, nor does the mother wait to love her child until the child somehow deserves it. A mother loves her child simply because she’s her child.
This is a love I, too, have for Farah, a love that doesn’t seem to be of my making or of hers. It’s simply there; it arises spontaneously and naturally from deep within. From within this love, though, I find myself wondering what she will become, how her life will unfold and what it will bring. I also recognise in myself a degree of sadness that I won’t live long enough to see her live her life to its end. I shan’t see the fulfilment of the promise, potential and possibility that she represents right now, but then that’s life isn’t it. We live our own lives and then make way for the next generations to live theirs.
And Farah’s arrival also makes me reflect on my own life and the course it’s taken thus far with all its twists and turns, joys and sorrows, ups and downs. There’s a temptation in all of us to live vicariously to some extent. Parents, especially, can project on to their own children their own unrealised hopes, longings and ambitions. That’s a danger, I guess, for grandparents, too. In truth, of course, what we’re all called to do, whether in family relationships, friendships or passing acquaintances, is to enable every single human being, as far as it lies within us, to be who they really have it in them to be. All of us both help and hinder that possibility in all sorts of ways.
It’s in Luke’s gospel, more than in any other, that we find the questions of promise, potential and possibility presented to us in relation to Jesus. Luke allows time for Jesus to grow and develop, to discover who he really is and, in so doing, to show us, too, who we, deep down, really are. And Mary and Joseph play a pivotal role in Jesus’ nurture and development.
Luke alone includes the story of Jesus visiting the temple on the threshold of adolescence, as we heard in today’s gospel reading. Mary, of all people, must have wondered what would become of her child from before his birth. Luke depicts the sense of anticipation and expectation she had when she visited her cousin Elizabeth, pregnant with her own son, John. Luke tells us that when the shepherds leave the manger, Mary ‘treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart’. Something similar is said of her after the visit to the temple when Jesus gets lost: ‘His mother treasured all these things in her heart’. It’s as if Mary gives Jesus everything a child could ask for, primarily love, but a love which includes, crucially, perhaps, allowing the child space to grow without imposing or projecting her own desires on him. Jesus was for Mary, and indeed for Joseph, so it would seem from Matthew’s gospel, something of an enigma, someone incapable of being manipulated or controlled, someone who always seemed to put them into question, rather than the other way round. So Mary ponders and watches as things unfold.
On the surface, the account of Jesus’ visit to the temple at the age of 12 appears to portray him as a stereotypical, stroppy, very-nearly teenager: thoughtless about his parents’ concerns and responsibilities, insensitive about their feelings, and wrapped up in his own world. This, though, would be to read into it our own 21st century sensibilities and thus rather to miss the point.
Practically every parent will know what it’s like, shall we say, to ‘mislay’ a child. It’s happened to us twice and the feeling of utter dread’s almost impossible to describe. This wasn’t quite how it was for Mary and Joseph. What appears to be carelessness on their part was probably nothing of the sort. In order to celebrate the Passover, families and friends usually travelled to and from Jerusalem with others in large groups. It would simply have been assumed that Jesus was somewhere in the party. Only at the end of the day would it have become clear that Jesus wasn’t with them. At that stage, no doubt, panic set in, but when they found Jesus safe and sound, deep in discussion with the teachers in the temple, there was almost certainly that mixture of relief and then anger: ‘Oh, Jesus, thank God you’re safe. If you ever do that again, we’ll kill you!’ Luke’s concern, though, isn’t really with psychological analysis; it’s with something else.
Luke’s Jesus is in one sense rather precocious: he can hold his own at the age of 12 with the best teachers of the day. But that’s rather the point. When he says, ‘Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ or in the more familiar but equally acceptable translation, ‘Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?’, Luke’s showing that the answer to the implicit question, ‘What then will this child become?’, lies in his total orientation to God. His very being, life and identity are found in God. At the same time, though, this doesn’t give him carte blanche to ignore human considerations, conventions and concerns; he submits himself in obedience to Mary and Joseph and, as a result, grows in wisdom and in divine and human favour. What his life shows, as it unfolds and develops, is that to be truly and fully human requires our being utterly grounded in God, just as to be divine means for Jesus to surrender himself in all humility to the needs and demands of humanity. And these two orientations meet supremely as the manifestation of love and compassion.
The answer to the question, ‘What then will this child become?’, is to be found in the way Luke presents Jesus in his teaching and in his life as the very embodiment of love and compassion. In his first sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus reads from the scroll of the Prophecy of Isaiah, but stops reading at the point where vengeance is mentioned. He turns his back on violence, power and force in favour of compassionate understanding and self-giving love, something he’ll live out in his own passion and death. Only in Luke do we find the parable of the Good Samaritan, depicting as it does how the hated outsider is closer to the spirit of the Law of love than those who purport to live by it. Only in Luke do we find the parable of the so-called Prodigal Son, in which the father sees the world not through the eyes of success and failure but through the unchanging, unchanged and unchangeable love for his son. Only in Luke do we find Jesus on the cross praying with love and compassion for those who put him there: ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’
This seems to run completely counter to the way things are in the world, where love, compassion and forgiveness are taken so often as signs of weakness. Yet the opposite’s actually the case. Real strength is to be seen in the willingness to let go of oneself in and through the apparent weakness of love and compassion. This is so because Jesus shows us that this is who God is and what God’s like. The whole purpose of Luke’s gospel is to show us that God’s love and compassion know no bounds. Jesus demonstrates that being about his Father’s business issues supremely in manifesting divine love and compassion for all. And his whole ministry is about living that out in whatever way it’s called for, but particularly in his concern for those who suffer, for the marginalised, the excluded, the disadvantaged, the poor, the powerless, the disreputable, the unloved and the unlovable.
I may not live long enough to see what will become of Farah. What I do know, though, is that the more she grows in love and compassion, the more she will become who she truly is, as, indeed, is the case for you and me as well, for we’re all created in the image and likeness of God, who is love and compassion. The rest is simply detail.
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