CHRISTMAS 1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26; Luke 2:41-52
On Tuesday Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Today, six days later, he is twelve years old, on the cusp of adulthood, and visiting the Temple of God in Jerusalem. Next Sunday, for the Feast of the Epiphany, once again he will be a helpless babe – the visited and not the visiting. Proof that we are living in God’s time, not our time, that normal rules of linear progression and rational thinking do not apply.
As we explored at Midnight Communion, Christmas is messy, radical, subversive, creative and incredibly risky. It is predicated on God’s outrageous generosity and his tradition-busting daring. In volunteering to become vulnerable God breaks all the rules which have kept Divinity and humanity in their respective places.
And in today’s Gospel readings he is still turning the world upside down. Jewish tradition tells us that a boy is a man and therefore allowed to take part in synagogue debates at the age of 13. Luke is clear in telling us that Christ is only 12. Still a child.
Yet this child has already discerned the limits of both parental and religious authority. He has searched out the ritual, spiritual, academic and legal heart of his faith and he is listening to the wisdom it has to offer. But he is also questioning. Questioning, challenging, testing, re-evaluating and re-building the very structures of his religion. He has come as a child. He has behaved as an adult, with the authority to challenge authority. In so doing he has overturned the arbitrariness of tradition, he has ascertained that relationship with God, not age, is the gateway to spiritual maturity.
And what a relationship with God he declares. It is respectful but intimate, familiar and familial but also totally dedicated. ‘Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ or more literally: ‘Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?’ His decision is made. His relationship with his parents can only exist in the light of his relationship with God, and not vice versa. He is obedient to his parents because he is obedient to God.
So Jesus takes tradition, questions it, tests it and refreshes it. He shows that the value of tradition is in its relevance to the situation of the community. Tradition is not about binding but loosing, it is not about setting uncrossable boundaries it is about opening gateways between the known and the unknown, the settled land and the hinterlands, the old creation and the new. Tradition provides a base from where faith may range across uncharted territory to discover the Divine afresh in each new situation.
To put it another way, both sets of parents in our readings find strength and support in tradition and ritual. Elkanah and Hannah, Joseph and Mary annually travel to the sanctuary of God. This space for them in God’s house is a vital part of their connection with him, providing colour and resonance to the ups and downs of their year. Rituals give shape and resilient texture to their lives. Yet, for both, tradition is not a monumental monolith, it is a dynamic engine. In Jesus’s time the convention was that only the male members of a household visited the Temple. But Mary goes with Joseph. Custom is overturned so that the family, the community may grow.
And there is a touching detail in the story of Hannah’s annual visit to her son, Samuel. Each year she brings him a robe. She has a tradition. But the robe will have to be renewed because each year it will need to be a little bigger. Samuel is not staying the same, his relationship with God is not staying the same, he is growing. His mother’s yearly gift acknowledges this. And in doing so she acknowledges that her relationships are also changing.
Which leads us back into the Temple with the young Christ. He is listening to and questioning the conventions of faith. Listening to and questioning, not simply walking away, not starting his own religion, but reinvigorating, reinstating, renewing and reconnecting the ancient relationship between God and his creation.
So, even as we are celebrating the pouring of the ineffable Divine, Creator of all that exists, into the fragile scrap of a squalling baby, even as we stand between the visit of the powerless, ignorant but believing shepherds and the visit of the powerful, knowledge-filled yet believing magi to witness for themselves the exuberance of God’s inexhaustible love, God breaks the rules of story-telling, crashes out of our linear time to give a hint of God’s own time, where everything exists and does not exist all at once. It is like those paintings by Italian renaissance artists, where a character such as John the Baptist, is seen in the wilderness, preaching in the Jordan, in prison, all in one frame, all at the same time.
Jesus the babe is simultaneously Jesus the child who is Jesus the man who is Christ the crucified one who meets us today both in story and in bread and wine.
He bids us come, as he came, as Samuel came and stayed, as Hannah and Elkanah came, as Mary and Joseph came, to gather in the sanctuary of God to meet with God and mature with God with the aid of the worship and praise of the community. But he bids us come in our entirety, minds as well as hearts, with our questing, questioning minds. He is the God who is making all things new and he is calling us to do the same, starting with his Church, that aspect of his creative force to which we have joined as to a family firm through the covenant of baptism. Once again he, the Creator, is urging us to be creative, to see that his Church remains a gateway open to for all, allowing them access to the hinterlands, the quiet places, the spaces where the veil is torn and heaven and earth comingle as one.
Christ finds his full identity in the Temple, but to do that he also has to understand that obedience is not the highest virtue. He has to break the rules and find his own way. Only then can he be truly obedient to the needs of others.
And so, God is declaring, it is also with us. Not only does he remind us at Christmas of our call to be creative, but also of our call to be questioning of the rules, to build a Church which is not bound to uphold the safety of rules or rituals which have lost their meaning as creation’s relationship with the Creator has moved and mutated, waxed and waned. Instead he wants us to use our minds, our hearts, our skills and our passions to be a daring people, constantly turning our questions into new ways of putting the hands of the world into the hands of the babe, the hands of the powerless into the hands of forgiving Father, the hands of the powerful into the hands of the Crucified One. Only then will we be fulfilling Christ’s calling, which is our calling, to be about our Father’s business. Amen.