The Childhood of Christ, Gerrit van Honthorst (1592–1656), 1620; Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Fr Neil’s homily for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, 30 January 2022

Is not this Joseph’s son?¹

In the beginning of the creation accounts in Genesis, God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”²

A part of that dominion is expressed when Adam, reflecting the divine image in whose likeness he is made, names all the creatures of the earth. In this act of naming each species, Adam describes the character and delineates the limits of each creature.

In general this dominion of humanity is limited to other creatures, and that authority cannot extend over other human beings who are themselves created and made in the image of God. The only exception to this is in moments of personal transformation and change — but these moments are significant in that the person can only name another, or themselves, while acting under divine authority and not their own. Obviously parents have the authority to name children at their birth and baptism. Sovereigns have historically augmented names of those they wish to elevate to higher office. Again under divine authority, new names can be taken by the individual at confirmation, ordination and consecration within the life of the Church.

To know a person’s name is to open up the first steps to a relationship and know something about that person’s character and history, and above all to acknowledge their intrinsic dignity.

However since the Fall humanity has constantly, throughout its history, sought to dictate, control and exert power over other human beings. This corrupted attempt to extend dominion over other people has found expression in the names and labels given to an individual or group over which power has been exerted.

Names and labels have been used not to express the character and dignity of a particular person or group but to seek to limit, demean and dehumanise. Thus that person or group is diminished, and the apparent dehumanising is used to justify the oppression and exploitation that is meted out to them.

History is littered with examples of race and religion being used in pejorative terms that have affected nations, communities and families and sadly continue to do so. Brexit divided the nation into Brexiteers and Remoaners. Each is a twisted use of an objective description used as a means of labelling, rejecting and belittling the other.

The Church, sadly, made up of fallen human beings, is not immune from this diminishing of others. The identified group of “cassock-wearing trads” are constantly being referred to as being “rigid” and “enemies of the Gospel”. It implies that those who are obedient to the traditions of the Church are loveless, without compassion and are pharisaical in applying the law rather than the mercy found in Christ. Sadly this thinking seems to have influenced the latest attempts to eliminate the Old Rite.

Christ, having come to his own home region of Galilee, speaks in the synagogue and astonishes his hearers with the authority of his teaching. He has proclaimed the scriptures and taught in a manner that could only be described as prophetic — uttering the word of God. However, it was all too much for his hearers and they could not accept this person that they had known as a child; they rejected what was before their eyes.

Their question-statement, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” isn’t about acknowledging something of Christ’s origin and dignity, but a means of limiting and rejecting him by naming and labelling. The carpenter’s son cannot be the expected Messiah who speaks the prophetic utterances of God. Their outrage is so great at Christ’s seemingly ‘getting above his station’ that they attempt to kill him by throwing him off a cliff.

What leads to such blindness like the Galileans’ — and indeed every instance of division, rejection and oppression of others? Well of course, the Fall that sees man reaching beyond being in the image and likeness of God to wanting to be God himself and have power over others.

In our Epistle reading³, St Paul speaks profoundly of the remedy that should be at the heart of any Christian community, family and nation. This is so important that he says without it we are dead empty things subject to the whims of our passions, fears and anxieties — it leads to a culture of death.

Love is the key. Yet Paul doesn’t want to leave us with an open-ended meaning but wishes to tell us what it is and isn’t. Our English translations tend to fall into using adjectives to describe what Paul is saying but the danger is we begin to think of love as merely a feeling or emotion, and that leads to all sorts of trouble. Paul is using verbs⁴ and tells us what love does and doesn’t do. Love is not something just felt but a choice and decision to do love.

Love therefore doesn’t do jealousy, arrogance, boastfulness, irritability, resentfulness or rejoicing in wrong. What love does do, however, is patience, kindness; it rejoices in the right, bears, believes, hopes and endures all things because this love has been made flesh in Christ.

Whenever we are tempted to diminish another and strip them of their dignity we could do worse than examine our conscience by re-reading this passage and instead of “Love” first read “Christ” and then our own names. How do we measure up?

Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.⁵

Christ is patient and kind; Christ is not jealous or boastful; he is not arrogant or rude. Christ does not insist on his own way; he is not irritable or resentful; he does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Christ bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

I am patient and kind; I am not jealous or boastful; I am not arrogant or rude. I do not insist on my own way; I am not irritable or resentful; I do not rejoice at wrong, but rejoice in the right. I bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things.

When we encounter Christ’s active love, we see ourselves and others more as God sees us. This shatters the twisted lens through which we view others. In doing so we can once again reflect the divine image, which was our original purpose.

¹ Luke 4:22
² Genesis 1:26
³ 1 Corinthians 12:31–13:13
⁴ eg μακροθυμει, “is-being-patient” (lit. “is-far-feeling”); χρηστευεται, “is-being-kind”
⁵ 1 Corinthians 13:4–7