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

One of the most remarkable aspects of George Eliot's Middlemarch which sets it apart from the 19th Century mainstream novel (from which I exclude Charles Dickens, the theatrical caricaturist) is that of its six main characters, only Rosamund Vincey, later married to Dr. Tertius Lydgate, does not regard a happy family life as the basis for promoting social good. Dr. Lydgate wants to reform medical practice for the advantage of the poor and only fails because of Rosamund's society ambitions and rash expenditure. Dorothea Brook is the essence of philanthropy and marries Will Ladislaw who is a journalist and campaigner for social improvement. Mary Garth and her father Caleb are indefatigable champions of the poor; and, outside the main characters, even idiosyncratic Squire Brook, Dorothea's father, wants to do good, founds the newspaper Will works for and stands for Parliament.

What makes this so remarkable is that the novel until then was almost entirely concerned with family relations, dowries, legacies, money and houses, love and matrimonial alliances, properly spiced, of course, with indelicacy, adultery and illegitimacy which are, in their ways, not only moral blots but also social faux pas. They all have their different emphases but Jane Austen, Mrs. Gaskell, the Bronte sisters and Anthony Trollope are all primarily concerned, in one way or another, with the family. Dickens - and to a certain extent Mrs. Gaskell - has a much wider canvas but he tends to run his social concerns in parallel with his romantic interests rather than seeing the former spring from the latter.

It is not surprising, then, that our view of the family is what it is as the great 19th Century novelists were influenced by what they saw and in turn influenced their readers; but, contrary to popular assumptions, Christianity is not a religion of the family, private property and accumulated wealth and so perhaps the most culpable characters in these novels are not the outright villains but the clergy who are just as concerned with these matters as the richer members of their flocks, even though they promoted a little philanthropy in partnership with the wives of the landed and rich.

It is therefore wrong, on this Feast of the Holy Family, simply to emphasise how they always said their prayers and how well they all got on; what matters, and what Jesus was very emphatic about, was that a good family life was the source of strength for the conduct of public mission, not because such mission is peculiar to any social state, like a traditional nuclear family, but because the more solid our base is, the more secure we are in promoting the causes of the poor and weak on which Jesus emphatically insisted.

It is not insignificant that the first pronouncement made by Mary after her conception is the Magnificat; neither is it insignificant that the first external pronouncement made about Jesus is Simeon's grim prophesy that there will be sorrow in Mary's life because of her son which would not have happened, of course, if he had stayed home as a reliable successor to his father. Jesus has significant problems with his family in carrying out the work of the Father and he goes on to say that we must put following him above any family interest. The stringency of this requirement is difficult for us who fall back on phrases like "keep it in the family" and "charity begins at home". We have developed the cult of privacy which, when it goes wrong, turns into social isolation and loneliness; our paradigm of economic success is to own a house which ties up all our capital so that we have much less to give away except, of course, to our children, thus increasing the economic, educational and social divide between the rich and the poor; and in addition to being hostile to income, sales and capital taxes, our society is even opposed to inheritance tax, by far the least painful, which might at least mitigate worsening inequality.

And here again we come up against the private and the public spheres as somehow opposed: through Advent many of us have been making an extra effort on behalf of the poor and homeless by assembling Advent boxes, the reverse of Advent calendars, putting something in every day instead of taking something out; but while many of us are very glad to do this, we are not so keen on altering the structure of our society; we are happy to mitigate but not to legislate. We recognise the terrible plight of refugees but want a harsh immigration policy; and many of us think that the world will somehow become a better place by some sort of magic, without us having to do anything or - and this is no better - we think that God should somehow fix what we have broken, even though we have been given the means to solve our own problems, if only we would try harder and make more sacrifices.

This is all extremely uncomfortable but we need to be clear that, as Christians, we are living in a society where the hierarchy is precisely the opposite of what it should be, with the individual at the top, voluntarily making commitments to the family which in turn makes voluntary commitments to society when what Christianity requires is that our fundamental obligations are social and are ranked above the family which, in turn, is ranked above individual preference.

And so, when we think about the Holy Family, or about our own families, it is right that we should tear ourselves away from the sentimental and the self-satisfied and begin to think of our lives as reflections of the lives of the Holy Family, committed to the Will of God for a better world.