My nephew Joshua turns 18 next March. Joshua has been taller than me ever since he was 15, and his voice broke back when he was 13 or so, he got his driving licence ages ago, last year he finished a course in media at TAFE and right now Joshua is trying to pick up some work as a stand-up comic. I’m really very proud of Josh, he’s turning into a thoughtful young man full of creativity and character. But when he’s not around, in my mind’s eye he goes back to being the little boy with a big smile who when his mum brought him to visit us used to kick his football over the fence deliberately so I would have to go out and spend some time helping him find it. Alison remembers Josh from much earlier than that, and reminds him from time to time that she used to change his nappies. Seems that part of the job of growing up is to persuade the people who love you that it’s OK for them to let you.
In our readings this morning we tune in on two young men – who at the age of 12 or so, beginning to go through puberty and taking their places in the religious life of their people, Samuel and Jesus were becoming. Yes, it’s only two days ago we celebrated Jesus’ birth, and the church calendar has moved us on so quickly you might find yourself wondering whether the season of Christmas is over. Can’t we hold on to the baby in the manger at least till we get the Christmas trees down? Yet both Samuel and Jesus, we are told, are growing in stature and growing in human and divine favour, beginning to define their own identity and distancing themselves in appropriate adolescent fashion from both their parents’ expectations and ours.
Stature is about size, but not just physical size. Stature is not just what really big statues have, though I read once that the Victorian practice of making important queens and generals invariably about eight feet tall when cast in bronze was a deliberate way of also making them look like people of vision, people with an expansive outlook, people who saw horizons too distant for the rest of us, in short, men and women of stature. Size, in this sense, is also an important theological value – largeness of spirit, generosity of outlook is a measure of how much of the world you can embrace in all its diversity and contradiction without losing your own personal centre. People of stature see things in bigger categories, look beyond their own interests to the interests of others, look beyond parochial or factional interests to the good of the whole – men and women of stature inspire and challenge us even as they all too often annoy the heck out of us.
And at Christmas – even in spite of the secular virtues of merry-making and over-consumption and loss of inhibition that push the story of the birth of Jesus firmly to one side – despite ourselves, and just for an instant, we grow in stature. Just for a moment, like Ebenezer Scrooge, our souls expand and we see beauty in unlikely places. We catch a glimpse of God’s presence in otherwise ordinary and grumpy family members and co-workers, and allow ourselves to rejoice in acts of giving and to fantasise about peace on earth. Unfortunately feeling of expansiveness all too often is as artificial as the tinsel and the fake snow, and before we can say ‘Boxing Day Sale’ the busyness of life has pushed us back into the familiar cycle of competiveness and superficiality. What might it mean to hold on to the Christmas moment of heightened perceptions and widened horizons, to resist the silly season pull back into mental laziness and self-interest, and to practice growing in stature?
Actually, psalm 148 is not a bad place to start for a universe-wide vision of creation oriented towards God, the wonder of stars and planets spinning in orbits of praise, atoms, molecules and living cells vibrating in harmony with the dynamic order of the universe. The spiritual perspective that we call stature is grounded in the religious virtue of amazement at what is – beneath the pessimism, the loss of faith in human goodness and the newspapers’ list of daily atrocities that defeat our spiritual buoyancy, we need to tune our perceptions and our spirits back into the divine order that guides not only the stars but also our own lives, to pay attention to the slow rhythms of tides and seasons and living things and to know that we ourselves are at home with all this in God’s loving purposes. The perspective of psalm 148 is the spiritual equivalent of the culinary movement called ‘slow cooking’ – slowing down in order to notice what’s going on, the small and incremental movements of things, the significance and beauty of what in our busyness we too often pass over as the incidental background noise of our lives.
Jesus’ experience in the Temple as a 12-year-old, poised on the edge of autonomy and self-understanding, provides a good model for our own spiritual growth. The story speaks to us of priorities, of recognising our own need to reflect and to question our faith and its role in guiding our lives. The child Jesus forgets his parents and the rules of his household because he is responding to what he already feels as a deeper need to share in the wisdom of his tradition of faith. Missing in action for three days that remind us of the three days he will be lost in the sleep of death, Jesus here reminds us that we don’t grow without time apart for refreshment and challenge. We grow in wisdom and stature by taking the time to intentionally study and wrestle with the scriptures, to explore and discuss new ideas about the world and about God, to pray, to meditate and to serve others. As our reading from Colossians counsels us, ‘Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly’. A stagnant faith is a faith that’s grown cold, that’s turned into lifeless habit. A faith that is no longer open to learning and sharing has already started to contract. A faith that’s stretched and examined and reflected on is a faith that grows strong and resilient.
The vocation of being Christian is the call to be large of soul, to focus on the big picture of who we are and who others are. As the writer of Colossians puts it, to “Clothe yourselves with compassion . . . clothe yourselves with love.” Here, the vocation of spirituality is integrated with the vocation of living in loving relation, we are reminded that Christian spirituality is not self-centred but other-centred. And we are pointed back to the cosmic perspective of psalm 148, reminded that we are interconnected, that we are part of one another.
Finally, says Colossians, “let the peace of Christ dwell in your hearts.” Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead defined peace as the expansion of our usual self-centred perspective to include the well-being of others and the planet itself. Pity the delegates at Copenhagen didn’t share this definition. In the peace that passes understanding, Whitehead suggested, by incorporating the whole universe in our understanding of who we are and what ultimately matters, we participate in eternity. Above all, the vocation of being Christian is the call to think big, to take a wider perspective than the society we live in challenges us to do, to keep growing rather than to start shrinking. It’s a vastly different sort of expansiveness than the expansiveness of overindulgence into which, sadly, I fear I may have slipped over the past couple of days, an elasticity not of the waistline but of the mind and soul, and one that suggests a New Year’s resolution worth keeping.
This year, don’t let the Grinch of cynicism and self-centredness steal Christmas.