St Michael and All Angels

Observatory, Cape Town

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Christmas Day, 2014

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 For over a century there has been an argument raging in the fields of both psychology and education. It is known as the nature versus nurture debate. The term was coined in 1874 by Sir Francis Galton, a half cousin of Charles Darwin. In 1883 Sir Francis also gave the world the term eugenics.
Without going to deeply into the debate, it is about the relative effects of both our nature – those things which are innately ours – and the way in which we have been nurtured – those things which we have learned from our family, close associates, etc.
When we apply the term nature versus nurture to the baby Jesus, whose birth we celebrate in this Mass, we come up with some interesting ideas. As far as the nature of Jesus goes, we know that orthodox theology teaches us that Jesus by nature is true God and true man. The nature aspect of the earthly life of Jesus was to take up many years in heated argument, polemic, imprisonment and even execution in the life of the church. There have been many heretics who have posited different views on the nature of Jesus. Some were instantly dismissed while others managed to persuade the bishops and laity of their day about the validity of their views. 
By nature Jesus is true God and true man. 
When we take a glimpse at the nurture side of his life here on earth, I am sure we would all agree that the primary factors are Mary and Joseph. All of us receive our first nurturing from our parents. So too did Jesus.
There is not really much that we know about either of these parents. I suppose we have a little more information about Mary, although what information we have can often be vague and muddled as so much of it has come to us through legend.
As far as Joseph goes, we know very little indeed. We know that as far as the Scriptures go the Pauline epistles make no reference to Jesus' father; nor does the Gospel of Mark. The first appearance of Joseph is in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. In Matthew, Joseph lived in Bethlehem, the city of David, and obeyed the direction of an angel to marry Mary. Following the birth of Jesus, Joseph stayed in Bethlehem for an unspecified period (perhaps two years) until driven to take refuge in Egypt to escape the massacre of the children of Bethlehem planned by Herod the Great, who ruled Judea. Once Herod had died, an angel told him to return to Galilee instead of to Bethlehem, and so Joseph took his wife and the child to Nazareth and settled there.
In Luke, Joseph already lived in Nazareth, and Jesus was born in Bethlehem because Joseph and Mary have to travel there to be counted in a census. Luke's account makes no mention of angels and dreams, the Massacre of the Innocents, or of a visit to Egypt.
The last time Joseph appears in person in any Gospel is the story of the Passover visit to the Temple in Jerusalem when Jesus was 12 years old, found only in Luke. No mention is made of Joseph thereafter.
Let us consider the way in which Joseph was part of the nurture of the baby whose birth we gather to celebrate. We can assume that Joseph, a carpenter working from home, would have been part of the early learning of the boy. We know he was part of his religious formation – he took him to the Temple when he was 12. Joseph taught the young Jesus his skills as a carpenter. When Jesus taught in the synagogue, S Mark tells us, “… many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter?”
In the annual retelling of the wonderful story of Christmas we often forget S Joseph. In our own lives we can often forget our own fathers. May S Joseph be a pattern of fatherhood. 
The Christmas story we retell and celebrate each year is very simple, and so familiar to all of us. We should not forget that prophets foretold that simple story. Angels proclaimed it. Shepherds and kings celebrated it. This simple story of a child’s birth has been retold for 2,000 years. The story has made martyrs, and moved civilizations, and changed lives.
The story is celebrated because the child born at Christmas is unlike any child born before him, or any who would be born thereafter. The child who was born — Jesus Christ — was God himself, born into humanity, in order to draw every human soul into the life of God. The child was born because we need a saviour. We live in an age of incredible achievement. The technological advances of the past 50 years are unmatched by any other period in human history. We can communicate, and travel, and work in ways that would have been unimaginable only 100 years ago. As a schoolmaster some of the children I taught are now working in jobs which had not been invented when they were at school.
Advances in medicine mean that we live longer and healthier lives, and advances in agricultural science mean that more people can be fed through the fruit of our work than ever before. It is not implausible to think that in the next 50 years, we might cure cancer — in fact, at this moment, almost no technological achievement seems beyond our grasp. But no matter what we invent, humanity alone is incapable of achieving everlasting justice, everlasting freedom, or everlasting love. And no matter how we innovate, we cannot escape the confines of our mortality.
Sin — manifested in suffering, in chaos, in selfishness, and in death, cannot be overcome by our hard work, our technology or our innovation. Sin stands in the way of all we hope to achieve.
This is why we need a saviour. Only a saviour, God himself, can eradicate the power of sin.
At Christmas, God entered the world as a human being — a baby. He lived as we do, and died, as we do, and then rose from the dead. He did not sin, but he suffered death because of sin. But Christ is divine, and in death, he conquered sin.  
By sharing our frailty, our weakness, our mortality, and then by redeeming it on the Cross and in the resurrection, Christ undid the power of sin. He made it possible for each of us to share in the eternal life of God. 
The birth of Jesus Christ means that every single person — through Jesus Christ — can share in the love of God. God’s love means that death need not destroy us. It means that sin need not enslave us. The love of God — in Jesus Christ — means that injustice, and loneliness, and poverty, and suffering can be overcome.
At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. In him, we celebrate the birth of true freedom, of true justice, of true peace, and of everlasting joy. May we be set free from sin. May we know real love, and real peace. And may each of us grow in that love and peace.
May the Christ child bless you this Christmas.


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