Us and Them

Thursday 16th December 2004
Year A, Feast of the Holy Family
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Matthew 2:13-14; 2:19-23

One of the greatest temptations in our culture is to try and make sense of it by dividing the whole of human existence into two, between us and them. So often, for example, in order to provide us with what they call "balanced coverage", news programmes find two people with totally opposed points of view who fight like ferrets in a sack. At our own community level we also find it easy to slip into one camp or another over a dispute, losing our ability to see both sides of a question and completely losing sight of the idea that their might be a third or even a fourth option. Even preachers fall into this trap all too readily, contrasting saints and sinners or pointing to "us" who are comfortable and "them" who are in need.

And yet, we all know it is not quite that simple. Yesterday millions of families will have gathered for Christmas, remembering good times and bad, and millions of lonely people, too, externally comfortable, will have sat alone remembering times better and worse. There might have been more joy yesterday than on a normal working day but there were almost certainly more serious quarrels and more suicides. And this sadness and loneliness, the fights and the deaths, will have taken place in comfortable as well as in threadbare homes. So often, for our self preservation and for our image, we project an impression of flawless family life when there are tragic memories and inner tensions.

It is in Matthew's account of the Nativity and its aftermath that we see the dark side of the Holy Family. Admittedly, according to Matthew Jesus was not born in a stable but in a house in Bethlehem because that is where his family lived; and that is where The Wise Men (un-numbered) that came from the East presented their gifts. But immediately afterwards the family had to abandon their house and go to Egypt as exiles, as refugees; and even when they came back from Egypt they could not return to their home town of Bethlehem but had to live in Nazareth which, in itself, was a great deprivation for them. The two parts of the Promised Land, Israel in the North and Judea in the South, had only been temporarily united during the magnificent reigns of King David and King Solomon after which they split apart into the two often rival kingdoms. Both kingdoms were destroyed and their people were sent into exile but later Judea was restored to some extent; it was led for a time by the warlike and very orthodox Maccabees, it had its temple and its religious structure based very firmly in The Law. The former Kingdom of Israel in the North never recovered and the rump of its people were looked down on by Judeans; so the devout family of Joseph and Mary were forced to live in semi hostile territory.

In the meantime, while Mary and Joseph were in Egypt to escape the wrath of King Herod, he turned in frustration upon Bethlehem and killed all the young boys. So in contrast with Luke's account of the stable and the shepherds, the orderly circumcision in the Temple at Jerusalem and the placid family life in Nazareth, Matthew's picture is of disruption, slaughter, foreign exile and then settlement in an alien environment.

In the Luke account, Mary and Joseph seem to recover their social standing after a rough patch when Mary's pregnancy caused a bit of a scandal; the census trip to Bethlehem was a shared experience and nobody need know about the stable. In the Matthew account we have a family on the run which never really settles down, which is plagued by tragedy and tension.

Yet, as we all know, this experience of disruption and tragedy is not incompatible with presenting a placid exterior. The two Evangelists, with their different theological perspectives, have different things to say about the birth of Jesus but these are not incompatible. From the very start, whether we are thinking of the humble stable or the Egyptian exile, we are led to focus on deprivation and suffering as the context within which Jesus drew his first breath on earth and we are led to an understanding of the acceptance of that suffering by Joseph, Mary and, later, by Jesus Himself.

There are, I think, three simple lessons we can draw from our Gospel on the Feast of the Holy Family. First of all, just going once more over the ground we have already covered, we should not take everything at face value; just because people appear to be placid and comfortable does not mean that they do not have their insecurities and sufferings. Ours is a culture of reserve and conformity, ours is a culture obsessed with appearance and so we should not be surprised that people want to appear to be tranquil; we cannot stand noisy people who want to tell us about their troubles. We only have to ask ourselves how hard it is for us to tell the truth about ourselves to recognise how difficult it is for other people. What we and they need is to establish bonds of mutual trust so that we can share each other's burdens.

Secondly, we must learn to respect those who are strange or different and to care for those who are strange, different and poor. How would we react to a family like that of Mary, Joseph and Jesus arriving in Hurstpierpoint? First, there would be some caution at least in welcoming exiles, particularly exiles who were the same but different; you know where you are with atheists but you're never quite sure about Roman Catholics or out and out Evangelicals. Then, of course, in a relatively small place like ours the rumours would spread; these people were somehow embroiled in that massacre in Bethlehem and of course Herod is a nasty piece of work but you can't be too careful; there's no smoke without fire; those Judeans are always a bit above themselves. On these points we do not have a good record. I, for one, knowing what I know of us, would be terrified of arriving here as a refugee; it's bad enough hearing what we say about people from Brighton who come to live in our social housing.

But of course it is difficult to be generous in spirit when we are embroiled in our own troubles. So often we see others through our own frustration and pain as distractions or even competitors. And so the third lesson I draw from today, even more important than the other two, is that we should take our cares to the Holy Family. I sometimes talk directly to Jesus but I sometimes like to address Him through intermediaries. Personally, I like to have the odd word with Joseph because he's the most like you and me except, of course, that he's a uniformly decent bloke but I recognise that some people have problems with saints. Personally, too, I have a deep reverence for the Virgin Mary and cannot understand how she is routinely recalled in the Creed and Magnificat but otherwise marginalised in our spiritual lives. It is surely time to put Mary into perspective after an over reaction in England to the excessive Marianism of the late Middle Ages. But whatever our attitude to intermediaries such as Mary and Joseph, the central point is that we must take our cares to Jesus. How can we, who have waited in Advent and worshipped on Christmas morning, hold back from talking to Jesus who came to save us? How can we adore Him and then keep a spiritual stiff upper lip? We are in God's hands and it is the central mystery of our faith that to be in God's hands is to be in the tiny hands of Jesus, to be open to God is to make ourselves vulnerable to that vulnerable baby. To view the Holy Family, with Jesus at its centre, as a myth, as a fairy tale, as a cultural icon, as something apart from us in time and temperament, is to be guilty of idolisation, of idolatry.

It is not a matter of "us" who are human and "them" who are set apart; our family life and the life of the Holy family must be so entwined that we dwell in it and it dwells in us.