The gift of belonging

Sanctuary’s taking a summer break, but here’s a little something reflecting on the gift of belonging: a very significant gift we give children in our atomized society.

As a modern Westerner, I find it hard not to imagine Mary, Joseph and Jesus in a little bubble of aloneness. I see Mary and Joseph wending their way to Bethlehem, and forget they would have been travelling in a group. I see Mary giving birth alone in a stable, when she was almost certainly in a crowded family home giving birth in the warmest, safest, most normal place: near the radiant heat of the animals. I see the couple raising Jesus in a one-child nuclear family unit, when they would have lived in a family compound with aunties, uncles and cousins, and Jesus’ brothers and sisters. As I have learned from my theological studies, and from Middle Eastern friends and neighbours, ‘alone’ is a rather Western concept. It certainly wasn’t a way of life in first century Palestine.

The stories don’t spell out this crowded, busy life because the people who first heard these stories didn’t need to be told. Everyone knew that people and animals lived and slept together; how else would animals be safe, or people warm? Everyone knew that a household was made up of an extended family and various hangers-on; who could afford, or would want, to live otherwise? Everyone knew that Jesus’ brothers and sisters were just that: the product of a healthy marriage, and a blessing every one of them.

More, everyone knew that a first-born Jewish son is presented for the ritual of redemption. Since the first and best of all things belong to God, the first child belongs to God; and so, the parents redeem him by paying a small sum, and having a short ritual performed over him. Too, everyone knew that the prophet Elijah is invoked at the celebration, and that the new birth, like every new birth, would be linked to the renewal of hope in the coming messianic age.

This ‘common knowledge’ can affect how we hear tonight’s story from Luke’s gospel. Instead of seeing Jesus as a unique baby being presented at the temple in a little bubble of holiness, we realise that he was a normal baby going through the standard rituals for a firstborn Jewish boy. And instead of thinking that the adults he encountered behaved strangely when they expressed the hopes of the prophets, we realise that the adults were expressing the hopes and expectations that are heaped onto every newborn. There were variations to the usual patterns, which is why the words amazed Mary; but at its heart, this is a story about a boy being inducted into his religious culture.

***

We all know the cliché: it takes a village to raise a child. But it’s not just a cliché. Decades of social research is clear: it takes a company of committed people, of all different ages, to raise a healthy child, that is, a resilient child who grows in wisdom and stature.

In the modern West, many children are missing out. Between the loosening of family and religious ties, the shift away from neighbourhood life, parents working long hours, and children’s leisure time being highly supervised, many children and young people now lack significant adults in their lives. In our home state of Victoria, researchers have found that almost a third of young people cannot identify a trusted adult outside their home.

Because we have grown up in a time and place where many traditional rites and rituals have been lost, and individual freedom takes priority over social relationships, it can be hard for us to understand just how destructive this way of life is for our children. It is all too easy for even very committed parents to raise their kids in a bubble of aloneness. And yet the evidence is clear: children need more than a nuclear family to grow up well. They need to be anchored to a broad community with shared values, which nevertheless allows for individual differences.

This used to happen automatically: in households bustling with aunts and cousins, in family businesses run from home, in streets filled with people who took an active interest in the children, in apprenticeships, and in the casual conversations children used to have as they ran errands now done by adults. Children once rubbed shoulders with other adults all the time. But these days, there are few opportunities for children to form strong relationships with other adults, except through church.

We are not first century Palestinian Jews presenting our children for circumcision or the rites of redemption. We are a small congregation of twenty-first century Australian Baptists, living far from the lands and the rituals of our forefathers, in a society which doesn’t have much room for children. Over the centuries, our tradition, the Christian church, has been rather wobbly in its approach to children, swinging between unhelpful extremes as it sought to understand them either as original sinners needing redemption, or as holy innocents untainted by sin. We no longer have strong shared traditions or understandings that we can rely on, and so we must continue to think about what it means to raise children, both in our society and in the church.

In this light, tonight’s story from first century Palestine raises some good questions.

  • What responsibility do we have for the children we know, whether at home, at church, or through our wider networks?
  • How can we, as a faith community, support the children in our midst and the adults who raise them, and enculturate them into the ways of faith?
  • What visions do we pass on for our common future, which they will carry when we are gone?

As a local church, we’re doing okay, although the year of shutdown has been difficult. But, by and large, children are integrated into the weekly worship service, and feel free to participate fully, ask questions, and get involved in the conversations. Through their families and relationships with other members of the church, our children are being enculturated into the Christian life. They do not live in little bubbles of aloneness: the very fact of their participation in the services, in meals, in the kitchen, and in various relationships, helps take care of that. More formally, the rite of infant presentation makes a significant statement that each child belongs to us, and that we have a responsibility to them as they grow in the ways of faith.

So let us treasure what we already have. Jesus didn’t grow up alone, and nor should our children have to. Their participation in the life of the church is a significant part of their development and formation, and, no doubt, ours. But even as we treasure what is already happening, let us keep wondering how to do better, especially after shutdown. How will we continue to incorporate our children into the body? That is, how will we give them the gift of belonging which is one of the church’s greatest gifts? Ω

A reflection on Luke 2:22-40, adapted from a sermon given to South Yarra Community Baptist in 2014 © Sanctuary 2020. Image credit: Hamza El-Falah on Unsplash.

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If this post stimulated your thinking or restored your equilibrium, why not share it on social media? And why not flick a double shot coffee our way, to support our ongoing thinking, writing and praying. We are a small young faith community seeking to revitalize tired faith. Your contribution helps keep us awake.

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