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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Christmas 1, Year C
South Sydney Uniting Church
December 30, 2018

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


‘A holy (extended) family’

One of the myths informing the Santa Claus story is that of Thor, god of the hearth, the home and the home-fires. It can have a very insulating influence. An uncritical acceptance of this “meaning” of Christmas sees many a family gathered at the “fireplace” for gift-giving rituals (Thor, like Santa, is depicted with a long white beard and dressed in red). On this sixth day of Christmas, God be with them, and God be with you …

Santa Claus, à la god of the home-fires, is readily a patron of our modern Western family – the nuclear family: parents and children living together and more or less independent of wider family members and neighbours – and the hearth becomes a site where hurts resurface, tensions explode, and expectations of harmony go up (the chimney) in smoke.

Who’s been a good boy? Who’s been a good girl? Difficult (potentially enlightening) realities beyond this kind of binary moralism often induce panic and hostility (active or passive). All this pressure on the nuclear family can be very intense.

We have the Orthodox Icon of the Nativity before us today. It shows the theological meaning of Christmas.

Joseph (at bottom left) is some distance from Mary and the baby Jesus. The figure beside Joseph represents the Satan who plays to Joseph’s doubts concerning the advent of love in the world (divinity in and through humanity, animality) and concerning the part he is to play within his family and world.

Mary looks with compassion toward Joseph just as the church (in the Spirit of Paul’s letter to the Colossians) looks with compassion toward those on the margins of nuclear families – those who don’t fit the conventional moulds, those who feel frightened and/or limited within their homes, those whose roles will involve redefinition of family and community, and thus the salvation of the world …

Samuel was a small boy when his parents dedicated him to God and left him with Eli the priest and the wider members of a monastic community. His nuclear family had little to do with his upbringing and others shared in the responsibility. It couldn’t have done him much harm because we read: “As young Samuel grew up, he increasingly grew in stature and in favour with God and the people.”

Luke makes the same comment about Jesus, probably making the same point by basing his story on that of Samuel. “[A]nd Jesus grew in wisdom, in years and in favour with God and people alike.”

Jesus wasn’t raised in a monastic community as such, but neither was it a nuclear family. It is obvious from the story that his parents didn’t miss him until the end of a whole day’s travelling.

It’s said that Eastern families, like Indigenous families, were and are more communal and include the wider family where various adults have care and responsibility for the children in the clan. It is easier to blend in and not be missed by Mum and/or Dad. In situations where there is only one parent there are others who can take on the roles important for the formation and care of children, and the children are drawn into a wider network, giving stability and a sense of belonging.

This can have positive and corrective effects where the biological parents or parent simply can’t provide all that is needed for child raising.

Who, alone, is up to this overwhelming task? I think I sometimes have expected too much of my parents. Did I expect them to meet all my needs for nurture and guidance? I reflect on nine songs written this past year, in grief at my father’s passing, and cherish his presence in each one. (What might I yet offer my sisters, nieces, nephews, god-children?)

So much can go wrong when we are isolated within a nuclear family unit and the world is kept out …

I saw a film last week called Vice, a portrait of Dick Cheney. One of the striking aspects to the portrait concerns the American vice-president’s intense and protective love for his wife and daughters, even while his policies and business partnerships cause great suffering for countless others. Ultimately, in pursuit of power, he betrays his own child – his nuclear-family fortress collapses.

So much can go wrong when we are isolated within a nuclear family unit, or a single congregation, and the world is kept out … or when our sense of family lacks compassion, imagination, integrity …

It’s not healthy. Young people need older people (of all genders and identities), those who can guide and love and lead them into wisdom and maturity, and teach them about love and relationships in the world. Cousins need cousins. Congregations need presbyteries. Evangelicals need Catholic and Orthodox Christians. Christians need Muslims …

At the risk of labouring the point, believers need non-believers too (perhaps especially so today). Life together is an adventure of belief and non-belief. Epiphany comes from the dark night of the soul (John of the Cross). True faith comes forth from the crucible of doubt (Dostoyevsky). This is because faith is a return, again and again, to the condition of the possibility of love for neighbour and self – primal/primary faith is attention, vigilance, receptivity, openness (Rilke).

But I digress.

Samuel and Jesus received a communal heritage where God was honoured and worshipped … There were rites of passage as the children grew, which created security and safety and stability, and connected them to an ancient tradition.

Jesus was an impressive young person, attesting to the skills of his parents, but we read today how he takes leave of his parents (there is more than a hint of adolescent impatience with parental concern) and moves toward the God he calls Abba. He is 12, and so immersed in his spiritual heritage that he is able to hold his own with the teachers of the temple. This is not just head knowledge. He feels secure in the power of divine love, he is in the (infuriating) process of discovering/naming an experience of transcendence in immanence – family in family …

Mary and Joseph knew Jesus was not theirs to possess, that children are a gift from a God who is “father and mother of us all”. Children are given to us to protect and nurture and love; to be raised in the wider family of God’s people, a kindom of heaven on earth, which is one reason it’s so important for the church to have its act together when it comes to caring for children and teaching children.

Of course, there is still much for us to do (much to lament), and there is much for us to be grateful for: we do enjoy the trust of children and we do have gifted teachers and carers here. I note the wonderful Jesse Trees, symbols of miraculous genealogy – miraculous family trees. (There is a Jesse Tree shown in the icon, too.)

“Bear with one another; forgive whatever grievances you have against one another – forgive in the same way God has forgiven you,” Paul writes. “Let Christ’s peace reign in your hearts since, as members of one body, you have been called to that peace. Dedicate yourselves to thankfulness.”

I am thankful for this congregation, this diverse body, which mediates to me a divine love and peace. I discover and name, in faltering fashion, experience of transcendence in immanence, family in family. Here I sing and pray …

And the things that keep me from prayer are often deep and painful, associated with things of which I am partially aware. It is by joining with others and allowing a Voice to speak into my chaos and mess that I begin to see myself as I am seen. Focused, short-sighted, narrow-minded, hyper-sensitive, needy … It is confronting and I need trusted others within the holy family, others who are known to be wise, who can help me hear what God is saying to me.

My experience of family can be extended and even transcended within this kind of community.

In the silence, and before the Icon of the Nativity, to what roles within the holy family are you called? Come/Venite/Gawi Jesus, come into our hearts and lives … Amen.


Draws on homily by Jill Friebel and “An Anatheist Exchange: Returning to the Body after the Flesh (Emmanuel Falque and Richard Kearney)”, Richard Kearney’s Anatheistic Wager: Philosophy, Theology, Poetics, eds Chris Doude van Troostwijk and Matthew Clemente, 2018.

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