Happy Families

Sunday 30th December 2018
The First Sunday of Christmas
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Colossians 3.12-17
Luke 2.41-52

Alma Deutscher, now 13, is a child prodigy composer, pianist and violinist: at six she composed her first piano sonata; at seven she completed her first short opera; at ten she completed her first full-length opera, Cinderella, premiered in Vienna in 2016 under Zubin Mehta; and at twelve she premiered her own first Piano Concerto. So you don't have to go back to Mozart to find a musical child prodigy. In fields such as mathematics, we have many examples of child prodigies; maybe, as music and mathematics are so closely related, prodigies tend to be most frequent in areas where the fundamental issue is structure; there are not so many poet prodigies.

This puts today's prodigy into something of a context. Jesus, at the age of 12 or 13, is found in the Temple, by his parents, in theological dispute with the Elders and this, by any standard, is the behaviour of a prodigy, no matter whether you think that this special gift arises because of Jesus' divinity or whether you believe, which makes the event even more remarkable, that as an incarnate human being, Jesus had discarded all his divine advantages.

But this story is much more than a demonstration of prodigy, it puts down an important marker; it says three very important things about Jesus.

First, in going about his "Father's business", it was important that Jesus should understand his theological heritage, the Scriptures and the Law. Contrary to some heretical pronouncements, notably by Marcion in the Second Century, Christianity cannot be separated from the Jewish tradition because it has organically grown out of it.

Secondly, although Jesus retires at the end of this passage, only to emerge almost two decades later, this story establishes that Jesus' mission will be public and concerned with issues of power and authority; he will not just be a teacher of simple truths nor an advocate of goodness to the poor; Jesus will put himself on a level with those who make religious, moral and political rules.

Thirdly, Jesus was destined, in his dealings with authority, to challenge it; and it was that challenge which ultimately accounted for his torture and death.

This story, then, is a strong antidote to a sentimental picture of the Holy Family whose Feast we celebrate today. It is clear that Jesus knew by the time of his adult initiation that he needed to come to terms with the Temple authorities; and I think there is a more interesting piece of knowledge which we are prevented from seeing because of our sentimental attitude not only to the Holy Family but to all families: Jesus knew that in doing what the Father required he would be forced to upset his earthly parents which he does on this occasion; and which he does in his response to his mother at the Feast at Cana prior to his first miracle; and which he does early in the Synoptic Gospels by quarrelling with his family.

Almost always, people try to fiddle with the straightforward meaning of the dialogue between Jesus and Mary at Cana but it seems to me to demonstrate a quite natural tension between a caring mother and a son set out on an extremely dangerous venture. Mary would not have forgotten what Simeon said about the sword of sorrow and it is inconceivable that she forgot her fulfilled promise to the Angel Gabriel but mothers will be mothers! And she rightly complained about Jesus giving his parents the slip to hold discussions in the Temple; and she quite properly wanted Jesus to help out at the wedding when the wine ran out. But, after all, the mission of the Messiah cannot be readily accommodated inside the important but small rhythms of family life.

I put the matter in this way because I think we should ask ourselves how the mission of Jesus works inside the rhythms of our family life.

The peculiarly English view of family is that it is fundamentally a private, inward-looking institution. No doubt this is partly the result of our climate which keeps us indoors in Winter but it is also bound up with our views on private property; we do not see the accumulation of wealth as a necessary precondition for investing in society, but we see it as the necessary precondition for tying up most of what we have in home ownership. At the same time, in asserting our right to private property we tend to overlook the nostrum that a right has to be universal rather than personal. In other words, the way we think about money and property takes us away from using family solidity as a launching pad for social action.

We also tend to think of family as very homogeneous, as fundamentally non-contentious which means that we often veer away from the difficult and the anomalous; indeed, there are very many English families which would try to repress a child prodigy like Alma Deutscher. But in settling for the quiet we find it difficult to tell ourselves we have settled for the mediocre. And we also find it hard to tell ourselves that if we have not quite settled for the selfish we have at least settled for the self-centred.

And so it is that our mental picture of the crib and the carpenter's cottage reflects our own kind of family with no room for the outrageous manner of Jesus' birth and the precocious way in which he sat with the Elders in the Temple. But this limited view not only damages our own prospect of active holiness, it also blunts our ability to use our family as a base for advancing the mission of Jesus to build his Father's Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.