Christmas 1 • 27 Dec 2015

1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26
Colossians 3:12-17
Luke 2:41-52

Rev. Chris Udy

This is the shadow side of Christmas.
The idea of the shadow
comes from the work
of the psychologist Carl Jung -
who said that all of us have a part of our personality
that’s as real and as influential
as any other part of who we are,
but we don’t like it.
Jung called it the shadow
because it has our shape,
and it’s attached to us,
but it’s dark and mysterious and often frightening.
The shadow is the part of our selves that we reject.
It contains things like attitudes we’re ashamed of
or character traits we won’t accept
as part of who we are -
and because we reject it,
the shadow can be distressing and destructive.
But the shadow also holds strengths and wisdom
that can help us grow and find healing,
and when we find the courage
to accept and understand the shadow,
it can teach us some powerful things.
We often learn about the shadow through stories -
like the frog prince,
or beauty and the beast,
and probably the best known shadow story
is the Phantom of the Opera.

Well - this is the shadow side of Christmas.
It’s the time when awkward realities emerge:
the presents are no longer exciting and mysterious,
they’ve all been unwrapped and revealed.
The food is no longer spice and perfume in the air,
it’s a few more kilos around our middles
and leftovers in the fridge.

The carols and candles
are no longer romantic and nostalgic,
they’re a bit out of place -
a bit overdone,
and we’d like to move on to something new.
The tree is starting to drop its needles,
the decorations will soon need
to be taken down and stored away,
and even coming back to church -
just two days after Christmas Day -
is a discipline rather than a joy.

This is the shadow side of Christmas -
the baby’s no longer a pregnant promise,
he’s started to make demands;
he’s imposing on leisure time
and interrupting rest.
He has needs and requires space
and he’s affecting our lives.
We’re starting to realise the cost of Christmas -
it’s expensive to have these family relationships -
and while the romance and nostalgia
is cute and attractive -
sometimes the reality is not so nice.

This is the first Sunday after Christmas,
and on this Sunday every year
the Gospel readings focus on the realities.
Before Christmas and on Christmas Day
the themes are grand and powerful,
but on the first Sunday after Christmas
we look into the shadow of Christmas -
and some of the things we find there are confronting.
This year our readings are about the pain
of children growing up and growing apart.

From 1 Samuel we read about Samuel -
who was born after his mother Hannah
pleaded with God for a Child,
and promised that her child
would be dedicated to God
for his entire life.
Samuel was born -
and as soon as he was weaned,
Hannah brought him to the Temple,
where he stayed and lived to serve God.
Hannah saw him just once each year,
when she and her husband Elkanah
travelled from their village
to make their annual sacrifice at the Temple,
and to bring a little robe that Hannah made -
each year a little bit bigger -
to give to the son she hardly knew.
The child Hannah had longed and pleaded for -
the answer to her deepest prayer -
was growing up without her,
and all she could do was provide his clothes
and watch him grow from a baby to a man.

The Gospel reading for today
is a similar story -
but with another dimension.
Like Samuel, Jesus was a gift from God,
as all babies are.
He was also born into a promise,
as are all children.
Mary and Joseph also provided for Jesus -
gave him what he needed
for shelter and nourishment -
and that’s the role of all parents,
and just as Hannah and Elkanah did,
every year Mary and Joseph travelled to the Temple
to celebrate the Passover
and to bring the prayers and sacrifices
that they hoped would protect their children
and build a happy and secure future for their family -
prayers and sacrifices
that are part of every parent’s love for their children.

But this year it was going to be different.

Like the parents of most 12 year old boys,
Joseph and Mary didn’t always know
where their son was, or what he was doing.
They were no longer the central focus of his life -
he no longer automatically looked to them
for security or approval.
That early childhood dependence
had disappeared years before,
and now the family’s role
was to set boundaries -
to draw protective limits
and provide a safe space
in which a 12 year old
could test his growing powers.
On this day one of the boundaries was broken.
They’d travelled a day from Jerusalem,
and while Mary and Joseph might half expect
that their son would spend the day in other company,
they would also expect
that he’d come back to them by nightfall -
and when he didn’t,
they began that cycle of anxiety and frustration
that all parents seem to know well.
Anger and worry
chased each other around their hearts,
and Mary and Joseph set off
back down the road to Jerusalem
searching for their son.

Luke’s next words are -
“After three days they found him in the Temple,
sitting among the teachers” -
and that mention of 3 days
should alert us to that other dimension
of this story.

On the surface we might ask
how it could possibly have taken Mary and Joseph
three days to find him -
when they were only 1 day from Jerusalem,
and surely the Temple
would be the first place they’d look.
We might also ask
how Jesus could be so thoughtless -
even as a 12 year old boy -
to cause his parents such grief.
But these questions would miss the point of the story.
Jesus is obviously something more
than your normal 12 year old boy.
Luke wants us to understand
that the special baby
had become an exceptional child,
and would grow into a unique man.
His intelligence, his wisdom and his faith
were precocious.
He could hold his own
with the Temple’s great teachers;
a voice was already whispering within him,
and he was beginning to recognise
God’s call upon his life.
But he was still a boy,
and it wasn’t yet time for him
to leave the home Mary and Joseph had provided,
so he travelled back to Nazareth with them,
and, as Luke says,
he was obedient to them.

In this story of childhood
Luke embeds an image of a time much later
when Mary would lose her son again,
again for 3 days,
and again find that he was in his father’s house -
and all the things she’d treasured in her heart
would suddenly make sense,
as she finally and fully realised
whose child it was
she’d carried in her body
and cared for in her home.

Part of the point of Luke’s story
is that Jesus is unique.
He’s unlike other babies and other boys -
and Luke suggests that right from the beginning,
Jesus began to show signs of his true nature.
And another part of Luke’s story
is that Jesus is every baby, and every child -
that there’s something we all need to understand
from what happened to Mary and Joseph
on that trip to Jerusalem.
When we look into the shadow side of Christmas
we begin to see that every baby grows up
and grows into a life and a purpose
that’s different from the dream
their parents had for them.
Christmas can often be like Hannah,
bringing a gift for a child
that’s growing away -
recognising that the baby
who could be comforted with a cuddle
and delighted with a smile - is changing,
and has needs and wants
that can’t be satisfied
or even understood by parents.

Every year the boundaries are challenged,
and every year the challenges
become more and more risky.
The family Christmas dinner includes
some tension and distance;
kids’ squabbles can become teenagers at war,
and then perhaps comes either polite silence,
or an absence from the table.
Children grow into their own lives,
their own purpose,
and often their values and their hopes
are not the same
as the ones their parents
would choose for them.
So Christmas can become
the annual measurement of distance;
it begins with a trip to a holy place,
but on the journey back home
we discover that things aren’t the same
as they were the year before,
and at some point someone will go missing,
doing something
that may be part of God’s purpose for them,
even if it leaves our Christmas
strange and awkward.
Christmas is a celebration of life –
but it can also be a time of little deaths:
death of babyhood,
death of childhood and its myths and wonders,
death of the family,
death of parents and siblings
and friends and partners -
and in the shadow side of Christmas
some of those sad and dark realisations come home.

There’s no avoiding
the shadow side of Christmas.
It comes because Christmas generates
a powerful light
of meaning and celebration -
and wherever there’s light
there’s also a shadow.
But shadows don’t always
have to be fearful or destructive.
They usually hide some pain,
and they include some grief,
but if we embrace
and enter those shadows with trust
and stay within them long enough
for our eyes to adjust,
we can discover
some profound and beautiful truths.
When Mary and Joseph lost their son,
they searched in the shadow of their loss
and discovered the child of God
who was living with them.
When her son died,
Mary waited beside that dark grave
long enough to find him risen to life again.

Our families and communities are changing.
Kids are growing up,
much loved traditions and values
seem to be fading,
the people we love have their own lives to lead,
and sometimes that means they leave us -
if not in body,
then perhaps in loyalty or spirit or values.
Those changes bring their grief -
but if we refuse to let grief
paralyse or embitter us -
if we go looking in the shadow -
we’ll also discover some wonderful gifts
and profound truths:
• new traditions -
that might make more sense,
and have even more meaning
than the ones we lose;
• new values
that are deeper and more powerful
than the ones we grew up with;
• children who become friends -
people we can cherish for themselves,
rather than for what they reflect about us -
and as the years go on,
and some of the special faces
around our Christmas table disappear,
we may also find a growing awareness
that there’s a gathering in a shadow place,
where people who have loved us
can welcome us into their wisdom,
and into a Christmas celebration
where the risen Christ is our host.

I don’t know what your Christmas day was like -
but if you’re now in the shadow,
and if anything in this season
has caused you anger or sadness or pain,
can I encourage you to stay with it -
explore and examine it,
pray about it and think about it,
and discover what God has hidden
in the shadow of Christmas for you.