|6:00pm||La Nativité du Seigneur, Messiaen|
Sermon preached on the fourth Sunday of Lent (18 March 2012) by The Reverend Canon Michael Hampel
The Reverend Canon Michael Hampel, Precentor, looks at the mystery surrounding Jesus' preaching in the temple at a young age
Hosea 11: 1-9 Luke 2: 41-end
The story of Jesus teaching in the Temple at the age of twelve provides something of a prologue to Jesus’s ministry. It is somewhat veiled in mystery, surrounded as it is by amazement and a lack of understanding on the part of those who encounter him – both the teachers and his parents. As a result, it is not quite a moment of revelation although perhaps we might say that it becomes such a moment through the fond recollection of Mary who treasures all these things in her heart.
One wonders, in purely human terms, to what extent Jesus’s parents had recovered from the extraordinary events of Jesus’s birth, twelve years before, and the visits of strangers paying homage to a new-born child so that this latest incident in the Temple brought it all back to them: that this was no ordinary twelve-year-old. How much fear and anxiety might that have caused to his parents?
As they headed for Nazareth a second time that week, how much might Mary have leant all the more heavily on her husband’s shoulder as she pondered these things in heart.
It often strikes me that anxiety is something of a hallmark of Mary’s role as the mother of Jesus: one sees it again at the wedding at Cana of Galilee – the tension in her voice, ‘They have no wine’ and the resignation in her voice, ‘Do whatever he tells you’.
And then there’s the foot of the cross and the unimaginable horror of guilt and helplessness. And the natural instinct of a mother to substitute herself for the sake of her son: and yet was it substitution that Mary was herself witnessing? Perhaps anxiety is to put it mildly.
And all of this on a day when we celebrate and give thanks for the concept of motherhood: our own mothers perhaps or the mothering or nurturing of the Church or by those people from whom we have received nurture and mothering in the best sense of that word. And is it not an irony perhaps that the best mothering often involves the most profound worrying. So what we celebrate today must also involve an acknowledgement of the anxiety we have caused either consciously or unconsciously. After all, who worries about the worriers?
Well, here we are – coincidentally but rather appropriately – on the eve of the Feast of St Joseph, Mary’s husband, one half of the ‘parents’ who were searching for Jesus with great anxiety, as we’ve read this evening.
Joseph, only referred to in two Gospel accounts, who never speaks; by tradition, a widower whose first wife Salome bore the sons whom we later hear referred to as Jesus’s ‘brothers’ – his half-brothers then; Joseph who may never have married Mary but was merely betrothed to her given that, again, tradition suggests to us that Mary died a virgin; Joseph supposedly much older than the young girl with whom he is forever identified.
Joseph, who, despite my generous words before, didn’t even notice for three days that his charge was missing from the crowd returning from Jerusalem to Nazareth; Joseph the carpenter, our translation of the word ‘tekton’ which meant merely a jobbing artisan with no particular skills and certainly with no property to speak of.
Hardly the middle class conventional husband and wife with two point four children which the Church champions as the only paradigm for respectable living in the post-enlightenment world of the twenty-first century, despite the eve of his feast day coinciding with Mothering Sunday.
And yet the Joseph who must have taken Mary in his arms after that terrifying search through the alleyways and fleshpots of the city to find their precious twelve-year-old boy: the Joseph who provided that shoulder to cry on which is the source of infinite resolve to mere human beings and yet which, for many troubled and lost people in this world, is often so hard to find.
For that alone, well does he deserve his feast day and his place in history. No words needed. He never speaks. What is more eloquent than to be, quite simply, Mary’s strength and stay all those years?
I wonder how many people really believe the Church provides that shoulder to cry on. If not, we must do everything in our power not only to make people believe that we do but to provide it when they need it, even to the detriment of our own personal neuroses and peccadilloes.
There is nothing conventional about Mary and Joseph which makes them all the more attractive and engaging, all the more real and effective, all the more loving and loveable.
Forgive me for using a rather over-used expression but I wonder if the Eve of St Joseph’s Day falling on Mothering Sunday in the middle of Lent reveals some sort of fault-line where convention is fractured, glad to be so, and – whether we realise it or not – we’re celebrating it: the fracturing of convention.
The very thing that makes Mary and Joseph all the more attractive and engaging, all the more real and effective, all the more loving and loveable – the fracturing of convention – has the power to make the Church all the more attractive and engaging, all the more real and effective, all the more loving and loveable. Jesus, Lord of the Church, sprang from this fault-line – the fracturing of convention – and his Church sits on it today. Let us rejoice and be glad.