Christmas is meant to be deeply disturbing

Frances writes on this weekend’s readings :- We can very easily get sentimental when we think about the Holy Family, indeed can make them rather twee. However the readings set for this year point in a quite different direction, and instead suggest things quite startling and disturbing. The reason I say this is because it seems to me that all those who appear in our stories both from the Old Testament and in the Gospel seem to be people on the edge, people who are the different and strange and the highly disturbing, which is perhaps where we are all meant to be. In our Genesis story of Abram and Sarah (Gen 15:1-6. 21:1-3) we find the patriarch the epitome of failure. He is old and childless and moreover his wife is cursed with barrenness so that his heir lives in distant Damascus, well outside the confines of what would become Israel. Abram cannot fulfil the basic requirements of a patriarch, a leader of men and provide sons to follow in his line until the Lord God takes a hand in the people’s affairs and rescues, not simply Abram and Sarah, but the very nation itself. by the promise of a son. Our text, a hatchet-job if ever there was one, significantly omits all the raggy stuff surrounding this event, with Abram and Sarah’s appalling treatment of Hagar and Ishmael; the horrific story of the Sodomites. and the resort to incest to produce offspring of the daughters of Lot, nephew of Abram. All of this speaks of the very precariousness of human life, most especially life without God. It makes very clear that without the guiding hand of God in all this the entire project of forming God’s ‘chosen people’ would have foundered right from the beginning.

Our reading from Hebrews (Heb 11:8.11-12.17-19) backs this up. and labours to impress upon us the faith of the founding father and mother of Israel and ends with that great tour de force, the willing sacrifice of Isaac – on whose life hangs the very being of the nation. We are meant to see that there is something distinctive about Abram/Abraham, as he is the one chosen out of all this chaos and violence and sin to become the leader of his people; and there is in him that God-given gift of faith which enables him not merely to respond to God’s offer of redemption, but to have some perception of that relationship with the divine which would start his nation on its long and painful journey to God. That our story ends with the aborted sacrifice of Isaac is of course the great pointer to God’s ultimate work for the salvation of his people, Jesus, the one for whom there would be no last minute reprieve; no alternative sacrifice; no ram caught in a thicket; but rather the supreme sacrifice on the cross of the only and beloved Son of God. He is the Father’s gift to his creation, born of his very being, the perfect sacrifice for a sin-ridden world.

When we come to our Gospel (Luke 2:22-40) with this disturbing background to guide us, we begin to see precisely what a strange set of occurrences surround our Holy Family as this long journey to the world’s redemption enters its final phase. First of all we have the conventional picture of the pious Mary and Joseph fulfilling the commands of the law and we think they fit in rather well. But at this point a startling event occurs. Simeon, described as ‘upright and devout’, smashes the whole thing to smithereens. Simeon is not a temple priest, nor apparently joined in any way to the elite who ran the temple or even of the ultra pious Pharisees, simply a man of prayer. Yet it is this man who becomes the rogue-cannon. First of all, unconventionally, he takes Jesus in his arms and blesses God with the acclamation that he can now die in the knowledge that he has seen the ‘salvation of Israel and the light of the nations’. But Simeon has not done a gentle or kind thing, he has declared to this couple, with no pretensions to greatness or high rank or power, that their child will be the one who, bypassing the long expected system rooted in power and political clout based in the temple and the law, will take the faith of Judaism out to the world! Simeon moreover promises Mary that her child “Is destined to be a sign for the fall and the rising of many in Israel.” This child, he prophesies, is going to be the catalyst that smashes the system and the expectations which had led and fostered the nation since the time of Abraham. He warns Mary of the pain this child will bring to her, “A sword will pierce your own soul too.” Now surely this is a terrible thing to say to a new young mother, not a scrap of comfort or of conventional well-wishing, but words harrowing and deeply disturbing, and he ends with the enigmatic promise that this child will cause “The secret thoughts of many to be laid bare.” The Greek speaks rather of the ‘revelation’ of what lies hidden in our hearts. Clearly then, Simeon’s words are not cosy but powerful. They shatter all conventions, and they do it most of all to Mary and Joseph.

This picture is taken up by Luke’s description of Anna the prophetess, and again we see that this old woman represents a break with conventional Judaism and families. She is of the tribe of Asher, up beyond Galilee, but long a widow and dedicated to the temple, though she does not seem to have any official position there, and appears to have forsaken all kith and kin for a life of prayer in the temple, something none of the temple elite or even its work-a-day clergy did. Yet she too sees Jesus and immediately praises the Lord and looks forward to the deliverance of Israel, deliberately going out of her way to tell others about him. None of our stories are about conventional or secure, nice families. All of them are about discordances, upsets, and radical breaks with the established order and expectations of it. The picture painted by Simeon and Anna, like those incidents surrounding the House of Abraham, are meant to bring us up short, to make us think and reconsider what the Christmas stories are about, and if we are looking for the cosy and the secure then we will not find it here; for just as these people are marked for life by their encounters with God, so every Crib scene we view will be overshadowed by the cross as we see depicted sometimes in the stable cross-beams of Bethlehem scenes. Christmas is above all the Feast of the Incarnation, of God’s full entry into our humanity, and it is meant to be deeply disturbing.

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