A Sermon preached at St Saviour's, St Albans

by Imogen de la Bere

The Fourth Sunday of Advent

December 21st, 2003



I heard this week that a group, tired of the sleaze and celebrity-watching of the British media is to start a good news, bum and bosom-free Sunday newspaper based on ‘family values’.

It will be called ‘Life on Sunday’ and based in the North, London being viewed as a centre of all things anti-family. The paper will return its profits, if any, to charity.  A noble venture you might think, though I wonder what they will do to make it interesting.

This phrase ‘family values’ presses a panic button in the mind of liberal Guardian-reading people like me. ‘Family values’ is a phrase that has been hijacked by religious right to mean rejection of alternative families and lifestyles. On the face of it, no-one can possibly object to ‘family values’  - the promotion of stable marriages, community participation, healthy living, religious activity, and child-friendly households.

But sadly, what seems such a worthy collection of ideals has become associated as much with denigrating what it is not, as in supporting what it is. So the campaign to promote the family has become a campaign against those who live in unconventional groupings,  and do not conform socially. The movement to promote the family has tended instead to attach individualism.

Family Values  - capital F capital V, are frequently closely associated with Christianity. Which is odd when you think about it, because Jesus was hardly an shining example of such values – he never married, had no children, hung out with a bunch of men, had some pretty sleazy friends, did not work conventionally hard for a living, encouraged men to leave their wives and families and jobs, and when his mother and brothers and sisters came looking for him, he told them to go away, because his followers were more important to him.

We need to reclaim the idea of family values for the mainstream. We are all family, no matter how we live, and we all have values. And the true expression of family values is not the TV-free, smoke-free, booze-free, Dad, Mum and four straight clean children gathered around the table.

A true expression of family values is -

Yesterday morning when I was  trying to avoid sitting down to write this sermon, I went into the seat, literally, of the family, the loo.  We are building onto our house at present, so the place is in chaos, and there is no light anywhere near the lavatory. Between four at night and eight in the morning, everyone is condemned to darkness in the loo. Yesterday by the light of day I found things in - shall we say – an artistic condition, as if some very daring avant garde painter had been at work.  There was no way of knowing which of the family had been responsible. Perhaps it was more the effect of more than one person’s occupancy. No-one could be expected to own up, no one could be blamed,  since we were all in the dark at the time.  You might say we were all in it together. Cleaning up the mess, I thought, now this is true family togetherness.

A more  lovely example of family togetherness is the picture in today’s gospel of a pregnant women embracing her cousin, a girl pregnant under very dubious circumstances. Two pregnant women embracing, and the unborn child kicking vigorously in the womb. You can’t get much more human, more down to earth, fleshy than that.

The gospel presents us with this simple, human picture of the two women – an image which does nothing to reinforce the so-called family value image of the patriarch and his submissive wife, surrounded by his clean-living right-thinking children. And, as if the two women embracing and the leaping foetus were not subversive enough, what follows?

The song of Mary. A song of subversion.  An anti-establishment anthem.

The Mighty One has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their heart.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones.
He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.

There is nothing in the Magnificat about rewarding the hard-working, about preserving the godly from harm, nothing about preserving the family or shoring up the units of society.  The lowly are lifted up – nothing about deserving it. To be lifted up in the topsy turvy world of the Magnificat, it is only necessary to be low. To be fed it is only necessary to be hungry.

You don’t have to be good to be swept up by the kingdom, you only have to be there.

The expression of God in the world, as expressed in the gospel of Jesus, has nothing to do with preserving society, nothing to do with deserving, nothing to do with Family Values as Ned Flanders understands them. 

But nonetheless, as Christmas Day approaches, our thoughts do turn to our own families.  We have made Christmas into the ultimate family festival. It is often suggested that Mary and Joseph and the baby are the picture of the perfect human family, and that is why Christmas is a family event. In fact that picture is misleading. Mary and Joseph and Jesus are only a family by the skin of their teeth – Mary might have been a single mother, if Joseph had ignored the voice of God. When we catch up with them again on Christmas night , the family are temporarily homeless.  Homeless families do not figure much in the world of Family Values.  Homeless families are perceived as feckless families.  Worse, the Holy Family are about to become asylum seekers, and we know what the respectable right thinks about them.  On Christmas night, Joseph and Mary are not having the extended family round for a meal. Instead they are in very scruffy surroundings, attended by a rag-bag of strangers and animals. There are no grandparents, or aunts and uncles round the crib, not even some nice neighbours who have been friends for years, nor work colleagues who have dropped by to share some Christmas cheer, just a miscellaneous collection of whoever happened to be there.

Almost everybody makes a point of spending Christmas with their blood family, fitting in as many of the grandparents, sisters, brothers, nephews and nieces as they can. And most people genuinely hate this event, and feel that their Christmas Day, which should be a festival, is just a huge drunken chore.

The truth is we have made Christmas into a family event not because the Christmas story is about getting the aunties and cousins together, but because we have so few family events we need to make use of Christmas.  We are forced to share our great religious festival with people for whom it means nothing just because they are family.  We do this because we have been brainwashed into thinking that Family Values – capital F capital V - and the Christian life are the same thing. This is not so.  And if we got together with our relatives more often, during the year, we could afford to make Christmas a different sort of day, a day on which, instead of subscribing to the world’s idea of Christian family values,  we could celebrate with those who just happen to be around – friends, passers-by, anyone who might enjoy a good meal and bit of jollity, those to whom the festival has a deeper meaning.  This is the gospel way. The kingdom of heaven is not the clan you belong to. The kingdom of heaven is a party for all comers.