Reverend Robert Reiss Canon of Westminster
Sunday, 31st December 2006
Those of us who struggle from time to time with the issues of parenthood may take some comfort from this morning's gospel. It seems that even the Holy Family was not immune from some of the difficulties of a child growing up; after all most parents today would be understandably concerned if their 12 year old child disappeared for three days and we should not be surprised if that were the reaction of Mary and Joseph. The practical realities of family life and the need to think and care for one another and the worry we might cause, can sometimes clash with the idealism of youth and the sheer processes of development. Maybe the gospel passage shows us that it has ever been thus, and I suppose in its way that can be something a consolation. If the Holy Family can be like us, then perhaps even we in our fallen way can sometimes be a Holy Family as well.
But if that is a practical comfort to parents, there is also a challenge for parents in today's gospel. For children do have to grow up, they do have to find their own identity, and in that process they will, inevitably, grow away from their parents. Not wholly, we might hope, and of course even at the hour of his death Jesus showed a concern for his mother in his words from the cross to her and to St John, 'Woman behold thy son, son behold thy mother'. But for Jesus filial duty was subservient to his duty towards God, and God had the final claim.
Like us Jesus had to grow away from his parental roots to become the person God wanted him to be. In that he was like us, we are all on a journey from being the person our parents made us to becoming the adult person we have it in us to be. Most of us, I hope, have reasons to be deeply grateful to our parents and to remember them with love and thanksgiving, but for all of us there will be moments when we have had to make choices, to decide whom finally we serve and who has the final claim on our loyalty and love. And most of us know that at some stage we have to move on to become our own person.
But it is never easy. Jesus must have known the grief he caused his parents as he went about his father's business, a grief when he was twelve that was only a precursor of the far greater grief he must have caused Mary as she saw him led to the cross. Jesus was surely sensitive enough to realise what he was doing to his mother. But then who ever suggested that the route of self-sacrifice in the service of God was ever easy? And that is what we are all called to, parents and children alike.
But what is perhaps the most striking thing about this passage is that, apart from the birth narratives, it is the only one that appears in the canonical gospels about the childhood of Jesus. In the apocryphal gospels there is quite a lot, and much of it really quite unattractive, as the child Jesus is sometimes presented as someone with miraculous powers used with almost petulance simply to get his own way. It is encouraging that the early church fathers were wise enough not to include those gospels in the canonical scriptures, but simply left this rather simple story as the sole witness to the thirty odd years of Jesus' life from the stories of his birth to the start of his public ministry. And perhaps the most thought-provoking sentence in the passage is the last one: 'And Jesus increased in wisdom and years, and in favour with God and man.'
It is, of course, impossible at this distance to know much about the development of the man Jesus, but the gospel acknowledges what we must all realise if we think about it at all that Jesus did develop. Despite the legends surrounding his birth he did not come fully formed as the mature Son of God. Growth and development happened. Listening to, and debating with teachers, is something most of us have had to do at some stage, and it seems from this simple gospel story that was true of Jesus as well. It must have been a developing understanding that was taking place in his mind as he increased in wisdom and years, and in that process, like all of us, he too presumably had to make choices. Although at times some parts of the gospels seem to indicate that it was all planned out from the beginning I doubt if it was actually like that. Things could have worked out differently, the knowledge, the insights, the personality that made Jesus what he was could probably have been put to other maybe less worthy causes, but then if that had been the case we would not be meeting here in this way now.
In his Christmas day sermon the Dean quoted the second century Bishop Irenaeus' explanation of Jesus' life that 'He became what we are in order that we might become what he is.' It is a compelling vision, not least of all because it doesn't imply something static but a dynamic process. Jesus became what he was because of all those years of thinking, praying, reflecting, discussing and learning that happened before he started his public ministry at about the age of thirty. And if we ever are to become what he is it will be by that same process. It will be no more static for us than it was for him.
And that may be particularly worth reflecting on this day as we prepare to embark on the New Year. Will we use 2007 to become more like he is? Will the process of growing in our understanding and faith that brought to this Abbey this morning continue in the coming year, or will it be simply stagnant? Only you - and God - will know? But in 2007 we shall all inevitably grow in years. Whether we grow in wisdom, and in favour with God and man is largely up to us.