Readings for First Sunday after Christmas Vanderbilt Divinity Library Lectionary

For the Lectionary and other reflections, check out First Sunday after Christmas Textweek

1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26; Psalm 148; Colossians 3:12-17; Luke 2:41-52

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

The Sunday after Christmas is known in some traditions as the Sunday of the Holy Family, which is probably why we have two family narratives as part of our readings today. Today we’re in the revolution of Christmas still: Christmas is not a day, it’s not a moment in time, it is an event and as an event it’s also a movement. We also today are at the turning point of the year - the event of ending and the event of beginning - and again, the turning point of the year is not a moment in time, but it is an event, it is a movement.

When we listen to the first reading this morning, the reading about Samuel, I guess we would have heard echoes of the Nativity - the reading talks of a boy wrapped in linen and his mother and father being there. And the narrative is both uncomfortable and yet at the same time, it is confirming. It’s uncomfortable because what we realise in that narrative is the parents gave the child away, something we probably find hard to contemplate, and yet at the same time, quite deeply, we know that there is rightness in that narrative: Samuel was a gift to the Lord, and it has a sense of that actually sounds OK. So we then question, is that reading a reflection of the divine giving we encounter in the Nativity, the divine giving the divine child away? In verse 18 it says, ‘Samuel was ministering before the Lord’; if we jump quickly to the Gospel reading, we hear that Mary and Joseph found the boy Jesus in the temple, sitting among the teachers; we also realize that they found him after three days. And again there’s a bit of uncomfortableness with such family stories, with the idea of losing your child for three days, worse still giving your child away, especially to the church!

But let’s look at the narratives inwardly rather than outwardly, so rather than being stories about ‘out there’ or stories from a past age, look at them inwardly. The relatively new science of psychology has begun to explore and continues to explore the idea of the inner child. Developmental psychology has posited that there are a number of life stages that we might move through as we move from childhood through to maturity. It’s also managed to note some of the difficulties there are of separating - leaving one life stage in order to cleanly embrace the next. Again we start to discover that our inner journey is also about movement, as much as it is about moments - our being and becoming is always in process. Now I think it was Germaine Greer who said or who suggested that the average Australian male takes approximately forty years to complete adolescence; she was making a particular point, I think. But there’s a wonderful truth somewhere there that suggests that the path through life is quite uncharted and we often take meandering routes as we seek to develop from child to adult. In an Eastern paradigm, it’s the same developmental journey that is seen as the path to Enlightenment - the movement from being an object of the temporal world to being a part of the eternal world.

If we now visit the Holy Family narratives with our inner child and our own developmental growth in mind they become stories for us about integration and orientation towards fullness and towards wholeness in our life. Samuel was a gift that she, his mother, had made to the Lord - this is an Old Testament narrative about life orientation. From birth, our orientation as humanity - and post-Christmas we must constantly remind ourselves that it is humanity with divine incarnation - so our life orientation from birth is an orientation as a gift to the Lord and with such an orientation, if that’s the direction, the course that we set, and we find like Samuel, one can continue ‘to grow both in stature and favour with the Lord and with the people’.

The Gospel says the same thing another way – ‘and Jesus increased in wisdom and in years’ and in divine and human favour. Mary also bore a child – a gift from the divine and a gift to the divine. Luke’s gospel narrative tells another story of life orientation and the interesting thing is it is the same orientation. Luke’s gospel is not there for the purpose of describing the boy or the man Jesus, it is rather to narrate the revelation of incarnation. This is not a gospel story about the baby that was born at Christmas and how he grew up and what school he went to: this is actually Luke’s gospel seeking to reveal to us, to open up for us, what does it mean that the divine became flesh?

Now consider for a moment the orientation you received as a child from parents and from the culture; consider also the orientation that you provide to our children and to our culture. Church and State combine together with self-interest to ignore the truths that are revealed in the readings today; Church and State, it would appear, actively seek to deny the truths that are revealed in the readings today. Our culture of self-centred family and the broader self-interest of nationality are actually inhibiting our development. Imagine what our world, what our culture would be like if we had the detachment of Samuel, the detachment of the boy Jesus and an orientation – a whole-of-life orientation – toward God and toward all people. Most of our adult orientations that we receive from our culture and from the reference points that have been handed to us, when looked at in relation to the narratives of Samuel and the boy Jesus, can actually be seen as childlike processes, rather than as movements towards becoming mature spiritual beings - as Iranaeus would say ‘humanity fully alive to the glory of God’; rather than that being our orientation, it’s as if we are held in a childlike place. Our culture’s primary orientation, or one of them, is to owning your own home; contrast that with Samuel and the boy Jesus who found themselves at home in the house of the Lord.

Christmas in our culture, which is only surpassed by the Boxing Day sales, has become an experience of gift-buying and gift-giving and gift-receiving. There’s something delightful in that, but we also miss the event of gift-realisation – of ourselves realising ourselves and each other as gifts. And then there’s our rush to the post-Christmas sporting events which takes us back to our childhood playtimes and away from any reflection on the encounter and engagement with the Nativity. When we look at these narratives today and put our lives in perspective with them, it feels like we are avoiding growing up, becoming that which we’re called to be. And I don’t think it’s just Christians, I think it’s probably a poor record that’s held by every institutionalised faith. For us we’ve got the added burden of a flawed theology that’s been crafted to support the status quo.
If we look at much of the teaching of our religious culture it is aimed at telling us that we are OK. It supports the status quo and so we remain quite passively childlike, looking to others to take responsibility – ‘why don’t they do this, why don’t they do that, isn’t it about time the Government did something about global warming?’ There’s always a ‘they’, just like with children there are always parents who will pick up the pieces. We give our power, which is the power of Christmas – the divine became flesh - there’s a transfer of power there, there is a giving, a gift to be realised – we give that power away to the world, we render unto Caesar that which belongs to God.

Samuel and the boy Jesus have an orientation that is beyond family and beyond national self-interest. They realise themselves as gift, a gift made to the Lord: ‘they grew in stature and in favour with the Lord and with the people’. They did not have an orientation toward their retirement plans, they did not have an orientation toward border security and they didn’t swat for their citizenship test to demonstrate their cultural conformity. They had an orientation that looked beyond all of that, and our orientation is the direction in which the future is created.

If this Christmas is to be anything more than a prelude to the sales, then we need to contemplate more the example, the life, the reflection that we have in Samuel and the boy Jesus. There is an orientation that they suggest to us, and it is not their orientation, it is our orientation. As we orientate ourselves towards a new year, it’s just interesting to reflect, when you wish someone ‘Happy New Year’, just reflect on the process that that’s about – what is the wish? What is the direction of that wish? Does it naturally have an orientation towards God? Does it hold a future orientation for all people? Or when we wish someone happy New Year, are you actually wishing something for one other, and quite innocently, in all ignorance, are we excluding all others? Is the ‘new’ in New Year truly a desire or are we actually hoping for more of the same?

The Lord be with you.
Peter Humprhis