Friday, December 28, 2012

First Sunday after Christmas

One of the delights of being a parish priest is watching the growth of children – not only their physical growth and the passing of their developmental milestones but their growth in spirituality and faith.  Two particular things have reminded me of this in recent weeks – the first being the annual City of Canning carols by candlelight, in which, as I watched the kids performing their parts and waiting their turn to go onstage, I was stuck by their attentiveness and reverence for the story they were telling.  And the second was a birthday party – the tenth birthday party for a girl who already is taking her part in the leading of our adult worship, by reading from the Bible with clarity and understanding.  We need of course to allow kids to be kids – not only to care for their physical needs and to make our church a safe place for them, but to respect their need to learn through play and to express their curiosity and delight in ways that are appropriate for them – but we also need to give them space to grow, to express themselves in ways that are increasingly adult and to make the shift from teaching them to learning from them.

This, of course, is the dilemma faced by Jesus' parents in our reading from St Luke's Gospel this morning.  In fact in both the Gospel and the Old Testament readings we focus on two young people – Jesus and Samuel – each of them aged about 12 which in the ancient society was when a boy would be expected to undergo his bar mitzvah and take his place as an adult both within the family and in the religious life of his community.  Samuel, we are told, is still growing – every year his mum made him a new linen ephod – some sort of liturgical garment – and brought it up to him in the Temple presumably because he had grown out of the old one.  The boy is serving faithfully in the Temple – Eli is pleased with him because every year he repeats his blessing on Hannah for the gift of her son, and in the bit of Samuel chapter 2 that our lectionary reading skips over we read the account of the gross misdeeds of Eli's own sons, followed by the contrasting verse: now Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favour with the Lord and with the people.

Jesus, meanwhile, is being typically – maddeningly, frustratingly and sweetly – adolescent.  Any parent who has ever misplaced a child, lost one however temporarily in a public place or had one run away from home, can relate to the sick feeling in the pit of his mum and dad's stomachs when they realise – halfway home to Nazareth – that their precocious 12 year old isn't with them.  Twelve is a wonderful age.  Developmental psychologists tell us that around 12 the adolescent brain becomes capable of what they call formal operational reasoning, which is a fancy way of saying that where at 9 or 10 your child will be an expert on dinosaurs or sporting teams or the exact make and model of every car that drives past, your 12 or 14 year old has suddenly learned to think and talk about abstract ideas like justice and ethics and algebra and God.  And just as suddenly, with a lifetime of experience and learning yet ahead of them, they become Experts on Everything.  So I can just imagine Jesus on the Temple steps, engaging the rabbis in conversation, astounding them both with his maturity and his immature enthusiasm, both with what he already knows and with his boyish passion to learn and understand, both with his humble desire for instruction and his innocent desire to show off.  And I guess we can all relate to the mixture of relief and anger and pride with which his parents discover him, on trekking back to Jerusalem, still on the steps of the Temple holding forth.

This is the only portrait the Gospels give us of Jesus as a child, and it is a wonderful, beautiful image.  It has verisimilitude, which is to say, it rings true.  Jesus would be like that.

But again what strikes me is the final verse of our Gospel lection – the comment that ends our glimpse of his adolescence: and Jesus increased in wisdom and in years – the Greek translates more literally as wisdom and maturity - and in divine and human favour.

It's about growing up.  The Hebrew word our Bible translates as stature, in Samuel's story, gadel – literally just means growing up.  Both Jesus and Samuel are doing it, growing in stature and 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.

This, I think, is a useful corrective against the tendency that perhaps all of us, as Christians, sometimes have – of putting Jesus on such a pedestal and of emphasising his divinity so much that we make of him an abnormal human being. A freak of perfection, instead of the world's most fully normal human being. A good way of putting together our reflection on Jesus as the one both human and divine is to reflect that humanity itself is made in the divine image and so has the potential to reflect the divine character.  Jesus, so we believe as Christians, and so the Gospel accounts of his life bear witness, is the only person in the history of our world ever to fulfil the vocation to which we are all called by wearing perfectly the human form divine.  This is why Jesus is called the first fruits, the forerunner of our human race, because Jesus exemplifies our own calling. The light that comes to focus in Jesus is the light that enlightens every person, that potential that is incompletely fulfilled and so often betrayed in our own humanity.  Jesus then becomes, not just a divine object lesson to impress us, but a template for our own humanity and our own growth.  As Jesus grows in wisdom and in maturity and in divine and human favour, so our own developmental path is to grow into Jesus – which means to focus not on what we can make of ourselves as self-made men and women, but on what Christ the incarnation of God in our own flesh and blood can make of us.

We are told that Jesus increases in wisdom and in years (or maturity), and in divine and human favour.  Four areas of growth that are not just a throw-away line to wrap up a cute story, but a guide to maturing in Christian faith, and not just for 12-year olds.

The Greek word the New Testament uses for wisdom, Sophia, alerts us that what is in mind here is much much more than the passing of exams or the learning of Bible verses or even the ability to do cryptic crosswords.  The reflection on Wisdom in the Old and New Testaments is a reflection on the depth dimension of human life and spirituality, growth in discernment and good judgement, the ability to observe closely and learn from the world around you, the lessons of creation and the ways of the smallest and least significant of creatures that reveal the wisdom of the one who made them.  Wisdom in this sense is the strength of character to turn aside from what is seductive and superficially attractive, and yet corrosive of integrity and will, and to persist with humility and patience in the study of God's Word revealed in the scriptures, in life-giving relationships, and in the pursuit of justice.  Wisdom is the refusal to be content with the way things are. Alert to the promptings of God's Holy Spirit in the world; facing the challenges and issues of our day. Using our mental capacities to the full in the issues, needs and questions of our communities and neighbours.  The pursuit of Wisdom is not just something to occupy your adolescence, the Wisdom tradition of the Bible tells us it is the work of the adult years, it is your true life's work which demands attentiveness and purpose.  Deep down, we know if we have grown cold in this – we know if we have stopped growing and started to contract, instead.

Growing in years, in physical and mental stature, growing up – means to become responsible, to assume our place in the world as adults rather than as children.  Do you know, many people never do this?  Many people effectively remain small of stature, demanding rather than giving of themselves, being tended to rather than nurturing of others.  The English word, stature, is about size, but not just physical size.  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.  And the funny thing is this – if we are not growing in stature, then we're shrinking.  Becoming smaller, our worlds and our capacity to care, until they are centred entirely on ourselves.

And Jesus grows in divine and human favour.  I put these together, because so does Jesus, when he is challenged about the most important law of all.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind and with all your strength – and your neighbour as yourself.  But again the key word is to grow.  It is intentional, and it needs to be reflected not just in what we say, what we give lip service to, but in how we live.  To grow in divine favour is to attend to your spiritual growth, to spend time in prayer and meditation; to study, not just skate over the top of the scriptures; to join with the community of faith in reflecting on the Word of God and on the meaning of Christian life.  But they go together because if the love of neighbour without the love of God degenerates in empty activism, then the love of God without the love of neighbour degenerates into an idolatry of self.  To grow in human favour is to grow, not just socially but in the ability to see the world through another's eyes.  To grow in empathy and in the ability to translate good intentions into action.  We grow in the ability to love and serve God, by learning to love and serve others.  Heck, we grow in the ability to even believe in God, to discern the movement of God's Holy Spirit in our lives, by loving and serving others.  There isn't any other way.

A theologian friend remarked to me a while ago that while the incarnation of God in Jesus is about hope, it isn't basically about the hope that God loves us, or the hope that God might forgive us.  That's always been the case, my theologian friend said.  Nothing new there. The only hope in the Incarnation is the hope that in Jesus, we might learn to become human, and that our humanity might become hope.