A Sermon for Sunday: The Most Holy Family & Sunday in the Epiphany Octave | Revd Dr Robert Wilson

And he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them. And his mother kept all these words in her heart. And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and in grace with God and man.

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family, as well as commemorating the Sunday within the Octave of Epiphany. It is fitting that this feast falls on this day for the Gospel for the feast is the same as the Gospel for the Sunday within the Octave of the Epiphany. At Epiphany we heard how Christ was manifested to the Gentiles through the visitation of the Magi. In the Sundays following the Epiphany we hear passages from the Gospels that show other occasions when the nature of Jesus was especially manifested. Today we hear the one passage in the Gospels that sheds light on the period between his conception and early childhood, and his public ministry. As faithful Israelites his family travelled to Jerusalem to observe the great feasts of the liturgical year. After the feast (we do not know which feast it was, presumably either the Passover, Pentecost or the Feast of Tabernacles) was completed Jesus remained in Jerusalem rather than returning with his family. People often travelled in large groups, partly as an expression of solidarity and partly for safety. After a day’s journey his parents realised that Jesus was not among his kinsfolk and acquaintances and returned to Jerusalem to seek him. A few days later they finally found him in the temple “sitting in the midst of the doctors, hearing them and asking them questions. And all that heard him were astonished at his wisdom and his answers”. His mother said to him, “Son, why hast thou done so to us? Behold thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing.” Jesus said to them, “How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?” It was an early instance of one who would later astonish his contemporaries in his public ministry because he taught with authority and not as the scribes.

His mother did not at the time fully understand this, but she kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. It is important to emphasise that whereas the ancient Greeks located the centre of the personality in the reason or intellect and tended to disparage emotion, the Jews located the centre of the personality in the heart. The heart included both the reason or intellect as well as the emotions. The heart was deceitful above all things and desperately corrupt (as Jeremiah had said) but if the people turned to God with all their heart and repented of their sins then they could be reconciled to God. Their God was not the Unmoved Mover of Aristotle, but the passionate and compassionate God of the Bible who (as St. Augustine later put it) had made us for himself so that our hearts are restless until they find their rest in him.

Jesus grew up in Nazareth, not in the palaces of the mighty, or among the sages and philosophers of the age. Galilee was a remote corner of the Roman empire. It was thriving and populous, but in the eyes of the sophisticated culturally a backwater. The Gospels do not tell us anything about the childhood and early years of Jesus before his public ministry and the most reasonable explanation of this silence is that during these years nothing of any great outward significance actually happened. This period marked Jesus’ hidden years before his public ministry and the only sign of what was to come was the type of incident that occurred in Jerusalem in today’s Gospel, an early sign of one who would later be recognised as teaching with authority and not as the scribes.

None the less we can perhaps gain a picture of his home in Nazareth from some of the scenes in the parables of the gospels, as it is reasonable to assume that in his parables Jesus was drawing on scenes from his own experience and childhood. We can picture a clay built, flat roofed, one roomed house whose owner when disturbed at midnight does not need to rise in order to speak to the man outside the door (Luke 11). The furniture is simple: the saucer shaped lamp made of clay, the bed, the bushel or meal tub, which could be put over the lamp’s smoking wick at bed time. We can picture his mother baking for the family’s needs and hiding the leaven in three measures of meal, a process which Jesus would later use as a parable of the growth of the Kingdom of God (Matthew 13). It was not a rich house but one in which the finding of a lost coin was a matter for real rejoicing (Luke 15). It was in this environment that one could learn that an old coat could not tolerate a new patch of unshrunk cloth, an image that would later symbolise the contrast between the old order and the new (Mark 2). In the streets and in the market places people gathered (Luke 7). Jesus’ saying about yokes can be seen to be based on the period when he followed in the family trade (Matthew 11), while the sight of a ploughman at his job suggested the firm quality required of a true disciple. St. John says that “he knew what was in man” (John 2) and this darker side of human nature can be seen in some of the characters who appear in the parables. These included the far seeing rogue in the parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16), a self satisfied materialist like the Rich Fool (Luke 12) and a self righteous Pharisee who thanked God that he was not as other men who were “lesser breeds without the law” (Luke 18). These scenes from the parables show a mind that was simple and direct and made the point with a minimum of words.

Jesus’s education would have been in the school attached to the local synagogue. The standard of literacy among the Jews was higher than that of other peoples since it was necessary for the people to understand the Law and the Prophets. That being said, Jesus’ education was not like that of St. Paul, among the learned scribes such as Gamaliel in Jerusalem, but of the more rudimentary kind that most of the population received. Though he was quite capable of arguing with the scribes on their own ground he spoke with an authority like the Hebrew prophets of old that really got to the heart of the matter. His mother tongue was Aramaic, while the liturgy in the synagogues was in Hebrew. Greek was the international language of the time and must have been frequently heard in “Galilee of the Gentiles” and would certainly have been necessary for a Galilean fisherman such as St. Peter or St. John to ply their trade. There is a modern scholarly snobbery that holds that Greek would have been beyond the capabilities of Galilean fisherman but this is quite wrong. It would have been impossible to work as a fisherman, still more to later travel as missionaries like St. Peter and St. John without knowledge of Greek.

All of this helps us to build up a picture of one who grew up among people waiting for the coming age of redemption and who was made in all things like his brethren, as the Epistle to the Hebrews would later put it. He dwelt not among the palaces of the mighty or the schools of the philosophers or even among the learned scribes of his own people, but in a remote backwater of the empire. Yet this would later prove to be the seedbed of a faith that would later capture the very Empire at whose hands he eventually met his death.

O Lord Jesus Christ, who hast deigned to be made like unto men, the sharer of our sorrows, the companion of our journeys, the light of our ignorance, the remedy of our infirmity, so fill us with thy spirit, and endue us with thy grace, that as thou hast been made like unto us, we may grow more like unto thee, for thy mercy’s sake.

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