I’ve recently been listening to Francis Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden which I haven’t read since I was quite young. In one scene, shortly after nine year old Mary Lennox arrives from India to her uncle’s house in Yorkshire, Mary waits in the morning for her new maid, Martha, to dress her. She has never dressed herself, having always had her ‘native’ servant do this for her – even her shoes. Martha is astonished at this, having dressed herself and seen her little sisters and brothers dress themselves from an age much younger than Mary is. Nine-year-olds among us, certainly by now you can put on your own clothes. When Martha, the Yorkshire servant, asks Mary about this, about why does she allow herself to be handled and dressed in this way, Mary answers ‘It is the custom.’ Siting her Indian servants who answered similarly when asked about something that just always is the way it is.
Unlike Mary, we are accustomed to dressing ourselves. That is a habit that we learned from a young age. We have many such habits. Our Colossians text talks about just this. With very little interpretations needed, Colossians suggests that we learn to dress ourselves and when we do, to choose the right kind of clothing to put on. We know when we put clothes on at this time of year, we should choose something warm, probably water-proof for outdoors, maybe boots or cozy socks. In summer or at the beach we might choose a big hat or sunglasses.
Colossians has some suggestions for the kinds of ways that we are to clothe ourselves and the kinds of habits that we’re to get into. Clothe yourself in compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. Forgiveness,, love, wisdom gratitude. Let peace rule your hearts. These are the kinds of habits with which we’re instructed to dress ourselves.
The family of Jesus also had habits. There are, of course, very few stories of Jesus from before he was an adult, and this is the only one of his or his family from when he was a child. This is a window into the holy family and their customs and behavior, and it occurs ‘when he was twelve years old [and] they went up as usual for the festival [of Passover].” Some version say, ‘As was their custom.’ This is something they did as a habit, every year for this celebration.
In many ways, Jesus’ family was like our families. We can see it clearly, especially when dramatized as it was by one of our own families.
- They had their baby dedicated at the temple . We hear about this just before, earlier in Luke 2.
- They have a child who forgets to ask permission. I’m sure we’ve all forgotten or had children who’ve forgotten (intentionally or otherwise) to ask before doing something.
- They went on family trips together. Road trips were very much a part of my childhood experiences – a lot of hours spent driving to the coasts of Canada.
- They have a kid who gets lost – or rather they are parents who lose their child. I think many parents have felt that heart-stopping fear of not knowing where your child is (this was for 3 days, a fact the Bible treats rather casually).
- There is total misunderstanding between parents and kids. The parents ask, ‘Why did you treat us like this?’ They exclaim, ‘We’ve been so worried!’ a the typical parent response. And Jesus bafflement and annoyed at not being understood. The beautiful Martini picture at the top illustrates this family dynamic beautifully.
- They have a child who grows up ‘in wisdom and years,’ just like our kids. By now I’ve had a chance to see some of our children grow to young-adulthood and it is a thing of pride. Malcolm singing on Christmas Eve – I mean GET OUT!
In those ways the family of Jesus was like our families. But they were also a family very much of their time, culture and religious practice. Even the brief stories of the young family show it. Their family followed the cultural/religious practices that shaped and formed young Jesus and formed the foundation for who be became. Don sang the question that asked if Mary knew that he boy would grow up to be the man who would give sight, heal the deaf, calm the storm. Maybe yes, maybe no; it seems she was quite a thoughtful young woman. But the fact is that she and Joseph did create a foundation for their family and for Jesus in particular, beginning as many of us begin, with dedicating Jesus in the temple.
- They made the 4 day journey to Jerusalem every year. This must have been incredibly formational to the children of that family who would need to travel by foot, be prepared in a way that we would never need to be for a journey. A very physical as well as spiritual experience.
- They did this journey with others. They were a part of a community that also followed these traditions and larger extended family who supported them in their religious life and teaching.
- They schooled their children in Torah and kept tradition at home. Jesus was surprised that they were surprised that he would be in the temple. After all, they had sent him to the synagogue to learn as all families would have. In fall I saw some 12 and 13 year old boys at Temple Beth Am read and recite their Torah portions – reading in Hebrew from the Torah and then commenting in a sermonette on the reading. Jesus would have done this and more. He would have spent time in the synagogue at home in Nazareth, sucking up knowledge like a sponge.
- Jesus went home and was obedient. According to the law, disobedience would have been much more shaming then than rebellion would be now, would reflect on the entire family.
This is a story that probably has its primary purpose to tell us about these customs that Jesus was steeped in – it gives him authenticity. From the first song Mary sand in response to his conception, about high revolt that praises the God who brings down the powerful and lifts up the lowly. To his dedication in temple, where an elder Simeon proclaim the child salvation to Gentiles and Jews alike. To his first sermon in the synagogue in which Jesus proclaims sight to the blind and release to the captives. Luke gives us these glimpse because his audience needs to know that Jesus didn’t just come out of nowhere, that he was steeped in scripture and was a good Jewish boy.
It is also a clue to us – families and not – that the kinds of customs and habits that we build into our lives matter for how we are shaped in faith. And even though it’s out of order chronologically (next week we hop over to Matthew and to the visit of the Magi with the holy family), it is well placed in the week just after Christmas and on the verge of the new year.
Do your families have traditions and practices of faith during advent and Christmas? We always did an advent wreath and advent calendar when I was a child and we’ve continued that practice with our family now. We have nativities – reminders of the story. We always read the Christmas story before we opened Christmas presents. We haven’t really continued that one. But maybe we should. It’s not only family traditions, of course, although I acknowledge that it can be easier to do things when you have family as an excuse. I read – in Geez magazine I think – about a woman who gave up electric lights for Advent, in order to anticipate the light of Christmas. That’s definitely something one cannot do if they have a family – at least not so easily.
So if Advent and Christmas are the entry points of the habits that we engage in the rest of the year. I recent when to spiritual direction after a shamefully long time of having not gotten around to it. And when I presented to my spiritual director something I’ve been struggling with, she said to me, ‘Have you asked Jesus about this?’ Oh! Right. I had, myself, forgotten to clothe myself with the habits that engage me in conversation with God. Prayer, meditation, journaling. We may find it easier to engage in the habits that are healthy for the earth or even ourselves (like those we talked about with the children) that those which engage our relationship with God.
What do we have in the rest of the year? In what will we clothe ourselves? How do we nurture those things that Colossians names: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness, love. These are this things that we prize and name and honor during the Christmas season but fade somewhat in the rest of the year.
A tragedy before Christmas reminded us (sadly, it reminded us again) of the horrible consequences that our national addiction to violence, power and weapons has on beloved children. Both here and around the world. I think many of us see this horror as a call not to arms but to put on the clothing of peace and love and compassion. And to keep putting on that clothing, when the rest of culture is telling us to forsake it in favor of bullets and guns.
Christmas is about incarnation. It is about God putting on the clothes of humanity – messy, infant, teenaged, conflicted humanity. The story of Christmas doesn’t end on December 26th, and incarnation doesn’t end then either. Jesus continues, God-with-us into his adolescent foray into the temple. Our families, each of us individuals, this community can also incarnate Christ in the world. William Danaher says this in Feasting on the Word.
That the incarnation took this shape in the life of the holy family gives hope for families of all kinds and conditions on this day. The model of living that the holy family offers is not, as is sometimes depicted in romantic paintings and portraits, is that of a family perfectly ordered and without division or differences. Rather, it is of a family that lives into messy moments with the confidence that God in Christ Jesus has entered and redeems them from within.
And I would say not only families but families of faith. This community is made up of families and individuals and couples and children and elders and those in between. We hold each other accountable and teach each other what it is to form Christian habits. When we put on the practices of faith, we are incarnating the prince of peace.
Jesus grew in wisdom and stature and divine and human favor – this story sets us up for the Jesus that this boy will become – just as Mary’s song did – his book learning became the basis for his affinity with people who were poor and marginal and unappreciated. Next week is epiphany. Many Christians (including us) will celebrate as the visit of the magi to the small child. In Eastern Christianity Epiphany focusses more on Jesus’ baptism (which we will get to the following week). This story and all that his family does, all that he chooses to do – is a preparation for his baptism and for his ministry.
Little Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden learned pretty quickly that she needed to figure out how to dress herself. And we too need to heed the writer of Colossians and get to work putting on the right clothes to dress ourselves for the new year. The clothes that Jesus’ family prepared for him. The clothes that this community of faith and our families of origin can offer, the clothes that we make for ourselves that. In invite you to take this conversation into the new year. With each other, with your pastors and with your Spiritual Leadership Team and new Councils. How can you help each other and how can we as a congregation nurture in each other habits and customs of incarnation and holiness? May we put on the Peace of Christ together. Amen.
 * William J. Danaher Jr. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C Volume 1 p.168