The Reality behind the Image

Sunday 26th December 2010
Year A, The First Sunday of Christmas
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Family Eucharist
Matthew 2:13-23

I wonder how carefully you've looked at the pictures on your Christmas cards. We usually look carefully at birthday cards because they often contain jokes but we tend to dismiss our Christmas cards as clichés: a robin, three wise men, a snowman, a star of Bethlehem, a decorated tree, a holy family snapshot, usually from a Renaissance painting, not to be confused with the shallow ego of the sender's glossy family portrait. But, in a sense, these two kinds of family picture have something in common: we see in them what we want to see. In the family glossies we see designer clad mum and dad with nicely turned out children and a glossy pet or two posed against a fake - or even real - rustic background: no meanness, no selfishness, no conflict, no unfaithfulness but the ideal nuclear family.

And in the portraits of the Holy Family the stable is made to look so snug for the baby, and the good old ox and ass are providing central heating against the Bleak Midwinter, and the shepherds are jolly fellows, and the Kings are generous and wise; and Mary and Joseph look so nice, her in the blue robe and him in the humble brown: no Roman or Palestinian soldiers, no threat of slaughter, no fear of exile.

But Matthew's Gospel gives us a very different picture. No matter what tranquillity there might have been at the birth of Jesus, political reality soon interposed itself. Astrologers, wanted or unwanted, appear bearing gifts of dubious merit. What would a working class builder's family want with frankincense and myrrh? And might it not be de-stabilised by gold? We only have to think of the effect on families of winning the lottery to see the point. And then, as often happens in the wake of uninvited celebrities, all hell breaks loose; the Holy Family flee to Egypt, which is pretty near equivalent to somebody from here fleeing to North Korea, and King Herod takes out his anger on innocent children.

Now all that might sound slightly improbable if we inhabit the world of the glossy portrait, and it certainly puts the tranquil Holy Family pictures into perspective, but all over the world there are families who are living in fear of torture and murder with exile as their best option; and in our part of the world there is a virulent campaign to deny such people the exile they seek.

Can it be that we are so unsympathetic to the family lives of the oppressed because we have lost some of the vibrancy of and faith in our own family lives? If the sense of what we are and of what we do is bound up with a happy and a holy family, what possible reason could we want for denying this to others? How can we repeat the golden rule of "do as you would be done by" if we wish conditions for others to be less blessed than those under which we live? Surely the only reason we might have for objecting to the blessedness of others is if we thought it would affect our blessedness. But here we must pause: it may well be that our standard of living might fall if our country receives a large influx of exiles - although there is not much evidence for that - but this does not affect our blessedness, for blessedness is not linked in any way with our material standard of living.

Which brings me back to the glossy family portrait sometimes displayed on Christmas cards. We have to be worried by people who think we want to be reminded of their good fortune rather than the incarnation because there is a superficiality here which conceals a deeper malaise. Clearly, as a country, with our children the most unhappy of any in the developed world, with the highest rates of teenage drug abuse and pregnancy, with an astounding level of domestic violence, degradation, rape and, at a lower level, incivility, there has to be something we're not getting right at the family level. We could make all kinds of resolutions about social policy and making more sacrifices during a period of economic stringency so that the poor might not suffer so badly - and I see precious little evidence of this - but what worries me are the scores of people I meet who think they are being good Christian parents and grandparents by allowing or even encouraging their children to opt for sport on a Sunday morning instead of church. How can we say we're good Christian families, holy families, if we put sport before God?

We're not investing enough; we're not praying enough; we're not sacrificing enough. Instead of being the crucible of community life, the family has become the fortress behind whose walls we exercise private choice. No wonder there is so much loneliness, for it is the corollary of privacy.

So when we think of the Holy Family we have to remember that it isn't like us in the glossy photograph, nor is it like the stylised pictures of the Renaissance, the picture of the Holy Family is the picture of the desperate in the face of the cruel, in our newspapers and on television news. It is the Holy Family that some of us want to turn round at our borders, sending its members to torture and death. When we go home, we should look at our cards more carefully, and then look behind them.