A sermon preached at Guildford Cathedral on 30th December 2018. Writing in The Guardian a couple of weeks ago, Emma Brockes reflected on the experience of sifting through boxes in her parents’ home and finding what she calls ‘the detritus of girlhood’. Perhaps we still have similar boxes of seemingly banal objects - and certainly exchanges on Twitter indicated that I wasn't alone in keeping the seemingly banal, worthless or useless.. As Brockes writes, ‘there is often an inverse relationship between the trivial nature of a keepsake and the wonder it evokes simply through having survived’.
That article and the conversation was in my mind as I prepared to preach today - preaching on a glimpse into Jesus' childhood. Having just returned from a flying visit to my childhood home, I was conscious that setting foot in my bedroom is like a microcosm of the National Museum of Childhood. Their collection of games, clothes, mechanical toys and dolls includes each generation’s “must have” (not things which ended up in our stockings!). In holding in trust our nation’s collection, their curators are also engaging us in the wider culture and experience of childhood - and it also made me ponder how those things enable us to enter an adult world.
Having heard sermons which sit lightly to the infant Jesus - rushing to focus on his adulthood teaching us how to be human - I began to wonder even more about the significance of Jesus growing up and what that might mean for us and for our salvation. And if childhood matters, then how do we enable others to grow up well. I had in mind another exchange about labels and ways in which we pigeonhole others within our congregation. However, as I've preached elsewhere, the responsibility goes much much wider and deeper in relation those who are robed of childhood through. The texts were: 1 Samuel 2:18-20, Colossians 3:12-17 and Luke 2:41-52
48 hours in my family home reconnects me to the mysterious and intimate detritus of my childhood: A-level notes; a Charles and Di thimble; a walkman; a Barbie doll; felt tip pens; tickets galore; letters from friends; commemorative coins; games, puzzles and banal keepsakes; books read and then re-read with my sister. Shared toys may have acquired a disputed status, but the Meccano my sister resurrected last week is definitely hers!
My sister's Meccano boat under construction (her photo credit too!)
These things not only preserve an experience of childhood. They also reveal the ways in which children are prepared for the adult world through imaginative play and construction toys, through storytelling and creativity.
There is one carol which speaks of ‘child’ ‘childhood’ and ‘children’ more than any other. It is of course Cecil Frances Alexander’s ‘Once in Royal David’s city’. It was first published in her ‘Hymnbook for Little Children’ in 1848; but last week, as in so many cathedrals and churches, our carol service began with a treble voice breaking the silence of anticipation.
The familiar words may have a sentimental glow; but they continue to remind us of the truth that the little child in Mary’s arms is our God and Lord of all.
Our God came to share in our humanity: sharing in our infancy, childhood and adolescence.
The ordinariness of that matters. It is wondrous: Jesus shared in the life of an earthly home in Nazareth; day by day like us he grew.
At the heart of our faith is the truth that God, in whom we place our trust, lived among us; occupying particular time and space. That means sharing in our weakness, obedience and curiosity; in tears, laughter and love.
Luke’s Gospel gives us a glimpse into that reality - not by preserving the detritus of Jesus’ boyhood, but by engaging us with who he is. Luke offers a snapshot of Jesus' cultural experience of growing up and discovering who he is.
Like other Jewish parents, Mary and Joseph took Jesus with them to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover as soon as he was old enough. They raised the child entrusted to them within a wider community of faith. At home in Nazareth, on the road to Jerusalem and in the midst of crowds celebrating across the city, he would have mixed freely with his extended family and friends.
To be 12 years old comes with a whole set of preoccupations and anxieties: the things we want to explore or understand; the people we want to spend time with; the absorption in a moment. It can be exciting, frustrating and not without worry as any child setting off for secondary school knows all too well.
The adolescent testing of boundaries and growing independence is in part a gift of enabling a child to grow up. Mary and Joseph are not immune from that risk or worry. They make assumptions about who Jesus is with; his absence goes on noticed for a day. Gradually the reality dawns that he’s not amongst the extended network of family and friends; they have to retrace their steps.
Luke matter of factly states that they searched for three days: a search which may well have been restless, impatient and sleepless. The expression of anxiety only breaks in when Jesus is found.
He is found not acting as a precocious teenager teaching his elders. Rather he is sitting amongst them. Jesus is listening and asking questions. He forms his own responses - giving answers which demonstrate a depth of understanding. The amazement of the crowds and the astonishment of his parents give way to a perfectly normal exchange.
Luke captures Mary’s relief and frustration, her anxiety and rebuke: child, why have you treated us like this?
Luke also perfectly captures a typically nonchalant and frustrating teenage reply: why were you searching for me? Wasn’t it obvious? I must be in my Father’s house!
To grow up is about discovering who we are; where our passions and aptitudes lie; taking responsibility for ourselves, growing in maturity.
For Jesus, he was growing in ever deepening awareness of who he was: God’s Son, with a longing to be in his Father’s house and to be amongst his people; knowing a complete union with his heavenly Father and a complete identification with our humanity.
For now, that also meant living with his parents; continuing to grow up in obedience to their authority.
For now, Mary and Joseph nurture him and come to know the cost of parenthood. Like Hannah and Elkanah before them, their will watch their son grow up not only in service of God, but as the one who is God’s Son; the suffering servant.
No doubt every stitch that Hannah made in the robes she prepared for Samuel expressed love and prayer. Perhaps Mary too sewed garments for Jesus as she pondered all that she had seen; all that she did not yet understand; all that she hoped for and feared.
The child at her breast became the child abiding in his Father’s house; the one who listened became the one who taught with authority.
He was the glory of the people of Israel and a light for all nations; and yet a sword would pierce her soul too. The one who was missing for three days would die and on the third day rise again.
The adolescent engaging with teachers in the Temple grew in wisdom. His wisdom is not an abstract divine knowing; it is an enfleshed knowledge.
The one who is our childhood’s pattern, thought and learned like us. He got older. He grew in understanding who is was: the Word made flesh, God’s beloved Son.
The Word was speechless in infancy and eloquent in humanity: God’s love sharing fully in our humanity so that we might share the life of his divinity.
Our prayer today is that as members of the Church, we might live as one family united in love and obedience. This is the prayer of Paul to the Colossians too. He adopts a language so familiar to our childhood. Just as we played at dressing up - taking on roles and identities of adulthood - so Paul invites us to dress in the new life that is in Christ.
We are to cloth ourselves in the virtues of God’s kingdom: to be compassionate as we put our feelings of empathy into action; to be kind in our treatment of others; to be humble in our service as we allow others to flourish; to be patient in recognising that building up a community in love takes time as well as sustained effort.
To bear with others is to recognise that within a diverse community, sharing in one faith, there will be irritations and disagreements. What matters is how we resolve them. Perhaps that means listening carefully to others; or enabling others to grow up, embracing their gifts. It means cherishing what each has to offer and avoiding labelling others in a way which belittles them.
We are all called to belong: and each Eucharist marks the character of that belonging. We are people who are forgiven and called to forgive others; moving from hurt and sorrow to healing and hope, seeking peace. We are to listen and to teach; to sing joyfully and express our gratitude. Our family likeness is to be the breadth and depth of love we receive and share.
Such redeeming love is revealed in the one who shared our life from childhood to final breath; he is the one who leads his children on, growing into one body in him.
As we break bread together, may God’s Spirit be at work in us; leading us onwards to reflect the character of God’s love revealed in Jesus Christ.
© Julie Gittoes 2018