Not much is left of 2017. The turn of the year is a moment to look back over the past 12 months, to recall all those significant moments, situations, events and people who have left their mark on your memory. Usually one sees a mixed bag: gains and losses, achievements and failures, dreams-come-true and disappointments… For some, those positives and negatives balance themselves out; for others, there’s an overall feeling either of satisfaction or dissatisfaction. Sometimes such a feeling is dependent less on hard facts than on one’s individual approach – you know, ‘glass half-full’ or ‘glass half-empty’.
The story in today’s gospel presents the happy family of Mary and Joseph going through Jerusalem with the new-born child, the baby Jesus. After their rather unpleasant experience of delivery in a stable, they are now entering the Temple, the place most revered by them as devout Jews. It’s a very happy occasion. They are to present their first-born to the Lord, and to show their gratitude for his birth by offering a ritual sacrifice. It’s a truly joyous moment, on an emotional level like yours when you brought your own child to be baptised. That moment of Joseph and Mary’s happiness and joy is enhanced by a meeting with two figures, Simeon and Anna. Both bless them, and both praise God for fulfilling his promises in the baby Jesus. Yet a shadow is cast over that moment of immense happiness when Simeon addresses Mary in these words: ‘this child is destined for the fall and for the rising of many in Israel, destined to be a sign that is rejected. And a sword will pierce your own soul.’
Of course, we know the whole narrative of Jesus’ public ministry, his cruel death on the cross and his resurrection. But Mary, on hearing those words, didn’t have the knowledge of that. The whole story was to be revealed over the course of thirty odd years. Think about it – thirty odd years; it’s a long, long time. How many times had Mary pondered whether a particular situation was the fulfilment of Simeon’s uneasy prophecy? Today’s gospel offers us a concise description of Jesus’ years between that memorable visit to the Temple in his mother’s arms and his public ministry: ‘They went back to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. Meanwhile the child grew to maturity, and he was filled with wisdom; and God’s favour was with him.’
Galilee was considered by the Jewish elites of Jerusalem to be a semi-pagan, inferior territory; Nazareth wasn’t the leafiest of neighbourhoods. The gospels are peppered with remarks and situations painting the image of Jesus’ life before his public ministry; that image is far from the idealised, perfect, impeccable one we often might be tempted to imagine. Jesus’ own way of teaching indicates his first-hand understanding of everyday life with all its joys and sorrows. We can safely say that over all those years Mary, Joseph and Jesus lived out the life of a regular family, with all its ups and downs, carrying out their little domestic rituals and traditions. In that respect, they essentially were a family like any other. As a man, Jesus was formed and shaped over those thirty-odd years by everything that happened both to him and around him, good and bad; by the people he came across, both the kind and the nasty.
The same can be said about you and me. Who you are now is the final result of innumerable, often forgotten, tiny happenings and experiences that you’ve had over your lifetime; the people you’ve met; your social and environmental surroundings; and many other factors I’m unable to list here. Did I say, ‘the final result’? That’s actually incorrect. This process is ongoing as long as you’re alive. So, why do we call the family of Mary, Joseph and Jesus ‘holy’ if essentially their domestic life was like ours? I think the answer lies in the final sentence of today’s gospel: ‘God’s favour was with him.’ It sounds a bit like religious gibberish… In our ‘language’ it translates as making the best of all those bits and pieces of life that come your way. Let me make a suggestion to you. Take a quiet moment before this year ends to look back over it. Give thanks to God for each moment, situation, happening and person that comes to mind – particularly those which were difficult, challenging or downright unpleasant. You might discover that – in all those moments – God has always been with you. You might come to realise that God’s favour has been with you all along. Be assured – that’s not going to change in 2018. Have a Happy New Year!
Photo by miapowterr