In the old Prayer Book today’s feast, the Feast of the Holy Name, was called the Feast of the Circumcision. In the Roman church the first Sunday after Christmas is usually the Feast of the Holy Family. The three are basically the same Feast with basically the same readings that provide further occasion to drive home messages of Incarnation: Jesus is one of us, Jesus is part of God’s plan for salvation, God placed Jesus within a particular people and within a particular family. And it’s this last that I want to talk about this morning – families.
Over the holidays many of us will have spent time with family. As we consider images of Jesus’ birth and Jesus’ family, we might be tempted to think ideal thoughts about families; indeed, the Roman collect for today’s Feast calls the Holy Family a “shining example” and asks for the grace to imitate them. In reality – as many of us know – families are complicated.
Though some of us may have been raised by “functional” families with attuned parents who imparted to us healthy attachment patterns, or who gave us a positive sense of self, or who taught us a healthy expression of emotions, or how to do conflict constructively, for example – for most of us, our families are a mixed bag: some things they did well, some things not so much. This homily is for those of us with complicated families; the rest of you are welcome to listen in.
For those of us with complicated families, somewhere along the way in the dysfunction of our family we most likely either lost or suppressed an inner child, that part of us that is yet soft and tender, that still trusts and is open, that yet possesses a sense of wonder and curiosity. Each of us, in our heart’s “manger,” still has this “holy child.” And this inner child possesses a wisdom, which – if we could validate him or her, and nurture and listen to him or her – we might draw on her wisdom, we might bring his curiosity and trust and love to bear in our relationships now.
I think the framers of Scripture – who likely came from complicated families just as many of us did – were aware of this dynamic of this inner child. And so two of our four gospels, Matthew and Luke, contain so-called “infancy narratives,” stories about Jesus’ birth. I wonder if the framers of the gospels included these narratives because they knew that, if we could imagine ourselves back into these stories, it might be possible to reclaim that inner child, to put our “holy child” back into our heart’s manger. For if we could imagine ourselves back into the manger – maybe imagine ourselves being loved by Mary and Joseph, or being cared for by Anne and Joachim, Mary’s parents; or maybe imagine hearing the tenderness and care in their voices, or maybe imagine having our words and feelings validated and met with empathy, or imagine having our boundaries respected, or imagine being surrounded with encouragement with no judgment whatsoever, or maybe imagine ourselves being held lovingly by Mary or Joseph, listening to their breath, feeling their pulse, experiencing their calm attention, knowing that our needs are known and that we will be cared for – maybe if we could imagine ourselves back into this “manger” of health – the healthiest family there ever was! – maybe then we could uncover the “holy child” within us. Maybe then we could draw on his or her wisdom and begin to find healing from the wounds that so many of us carry.
I invite us during the remainder of this Christmas season to take the time to imagine ourselves back into our “manger,” to imagine ourselves within this healthiest of families, to experience how special we are, to know how loved we are, to have our unique gifts and traits affirmed and praised, and to feel cared for. Maybe go online to find an image of an icon in which the Virgin and the infant Jesus gaze into each other’s eyes, and imagine what it might be like to be Mary holding the infant, or imagining what it might be like to be Jesus being held by his mother. Maybe imagine – if you are Mary – seeing your reflection in his eyes as he gazes up at you; or maybe imagine – if you are the infant – seeing your reflection in your mother’s eyes. Pay attention to what it feels like, and maybe tell God how you feel.
A poem by R. S. Thomas, the Welsh Anglican priest-poet, may help get us started. It is a poem about coming and kneeling before the infant Christ; it is a poem about Eucharist – which we are about to do; it is about looking into the chalice – where we can see reflections; it’s a poem about love stirring in our “heart’s manger,” which, when it does, can offer healing for old wounds. Here is the opening stanza of Thomas’ “Hill Christmas:”
They came over the snow to the bread’s
Purer snow, fumbled it in their huge
Hands, put their lips to it
Like beasts, stared into the dark chalice
Where the wine shone, felt it sharp
On their tongue, shivered as at a sin
Remembered, and heard love cry
momentarily in their hearts’ manger.
I pray that we this Christmas may hear love cry in our heart’s manger, and that we may know how much God loves us, and how healing that love can be.