This morning's reading from the Letter to the Hebrews
begins with the boldest and most unambiguous statement possible of
what's new and different about Christmas. God has always been
communicating with humanity, in any number of ways; but what we need
from God is more than just information. The climax of the story is the
sending of a Son: when all has been said and done on the level of
information what still needs to be made clear to us is that the point of
it all is relationship. God speaks at last through a Son, so that we can
grasp the fact that really knowing God, really responding to his Word of
promise and life, is a matter of relationship. It's becoming God's
child. And the consequence is that we ourselves learn to speak and act
in such a way that others want to share that relationship.
The Son, says the writer to the Hebrews, is the heir of all creation;
the Son is the lifegiving principle of all reality; the Son radiates and
reflects the unimaginable beauty and light of the source from which he
comes. When the Son is born among us, what happens is that this
unlimited, unending torrent of light and glory, of intelligence and
order and loving contemplation is poured into the container of a human
mind and body. Through what he then does in that human mind and body,
the possibilities for human life are changed for ever, and we are
invited into the same place in heaven that the Son occupies for ever -
the place that St John's gospel defines as ' nearest to the Father's
heart'. And the letter-writer triumphantly claims that our human destiny
is thus to be even closer to God than the angels are. Christian poets
and thinkers have often imagined the angels looking at us with amazement
- such very unpromising material, such limited capacities, such a genius
for self-deception and pettiness, yet promised such a future.
Relationship is the new thing at Christmas, the new possibility of being
related to God as Jesus was and is. But here's the catch and the
challenge. To come into this glorious future is to learn how to be
dependent on God. And that word tends to have a chilly feel for us,
especially us who are proudly independent moderns. We speak of
'dependent' characters with pity and concern; we think of 'dependency'
on drugs and alcohol; we worry about the 'dependent' mind set that can
be created by handouts to the destitute. In other words, we think of
dependency as something passive and less than free.
But let's turn this round for a moment. If we think of being dependent
on the air we breathe, or the food we eat, things look different. Even
more if we remind ourselves that we depend on our parents for learning
how to speak and act and above all how to love. There is a dependence
that is about simply receiving what we need to live; there is a
dependence that is about how we learn and grow. And part of our human
problem is that we mix up this entirely appropriate and lifegiving
dependency with the passivity that can enslave us. In seeking (quite
rightly) trying to avoid passivity we can get trapped in the fantasy
that we don't need to receive and to learn.
Which is why it matters that our reading portrays the Son in the way it
does - radiant, creative, overflowing with life and intelligence. The
Son is all these things because he is dependent, because he receives his
life from the Father. And when we finally grow up in to the fullness of
his life, we shall, like him, be gladly and unashamedly dependent - open
to receiving all God has to give, open to learn all he has to teach.
This is a 'dependency' that is utterly creative and the very opposite of
passive. It is a matter of being aligned with the freest activity we can
imagine, God's eternal love, flowing through us.
At some level we all recognise this, because we've all seen something
like it at work in our family lives and even our closest friendships.
Depending on each other, receiving and learning, are natural things,
natural expression of closeness and trust. Yet we have over the long
millennia of human existence created a whole culture in which there is a
basic impatience about learning - we want to get to the point where we
can say, OK that's enough, I know what I need to know - and about
receiving - we don't want to be indebted to others, we want to stand on
our own two feet. Like many in this congregation, I suspect, I can hear
voices from my parents' and grandparents' generation saying they don't
want charity, they don't want to be beholden, they don't want handouts
from the state or anywhere else. There's something brave and admirable
about much of this when what it represents is a generous unwillingness
to burden others. But it can also reflect a stubborn hankering after a
life that is under my management and doesn't need support from outside.
One of the worst effects of this culture of impatience and pride is what
it does to those who are most obviously dependent - the elderly, those
with physical or psychological challenges and disabilities, and, of
course, children. We send out the message that if you're not standing on
your own two feet and if you need regular support, you're an anomaly.
We'll look after you (with a bit of a sigh), but frankly it's not ideal.
And in the case of children, we shall do our level best to turn you into
active little consumers and performers as soon as we can. We shall test
you relentlessly in schools, we shall bombard you with advertising,
often highly sexualised advertising, we shall worry you about your
prospects and skills from the word go; we shall do all we can to make
childhood a brief and rather regrettable stage on the way to the real
thing - which is 'independence', turning you into a useful cog in the
social machine that won't need too much maintenance.
In the last year, the issues around how we regard childhood in our
society have been opened up for discussion with new intensity by a
number of important pieces of research like the Children's Society's
Good Childhood report or the Cambridge Review of primary education.
There has at last been a wake-up call about the ways in which we are
crushing and narrowing children's experience; and there is a long and
significant agenda there for debate in the months ahead.
But behind the details, there is one central issue. Can we as a society
accept and even celebrate the fact that there is a place for proper and
mature dependence - that human beings need to receive and learn: not so
that they can get to the point where they stop receiving and learning,
but so that they can acquire the habits of receiving and learning in
ever-new settings? Can we help children enjoy their dependency so that
they don't just leave it behind but get to manage it with freedom and
imagination as they grow older?
And that involves two difficult lessons for us adults. One is simply to
reconnect ourselves to our own capacity to receive and learn with joy
and excitement - to become like little children, as Somebody once said.
The other is to be ready to give the nurture and security that children
need - to create the safe places where they can learn, where they can
make their mistakes. To do this is to show that we treasure dependency
and that we shan't either exploit it or ignore it. Embracing and
celebrating our own dependence gives us the vision and energy to make
sure that others have the freedom to make the most of their dependence
too. And this means working to give all the children of the world the
security they need.
In our own society, there are problems enough - children who have never
known stability in their family life, who have never known a father or
who have been pushed into taking responsibility for a parent or for
brothers and sisters, with a mother who is ailing, addicted or otherwise
incapacitated; children with workaholic parents, materially well off but
deprived of warmth and relaxation with their family; worse still,
children and young people who are systematically exploited through sex
trafficking, children who are trapped in gang culture. Worldwide, all
these problems and more are all too visible; perhaps one of the most
appalling phenomena, still affecting hundreds of thousands of children,
is the exploiting of children in the meaningless and savage civil wars
in places like Congo and Sri Lanka - children who are abducted,
brutalised, turned into killers, used as sex slaves. To hear of these
experiences is almost unbearable, yet the scandal continues.
These children are created, like all of us, to become fully and
consciously children of God, to enjoy that glory we reflected on a few
minutes ago. Their suffering is an insult to the purpose of God, a
contemptuous refusal of the gift of God on the part of those who keep
them in their different kinds of slavery. God's gift at Christmas is
relationship, not just another human relationship but relation to God
the Father by standing where Jesus stands, standing in the full torrent
of his love and creativity, giving and receiving. To come into that
place and to be rooted and grounded there means letting go of our fear
of dependence and opening our hearts to be fed and enlarged and
transformed. And that in turn means looking at how we handle dependence
in ourselves and others, how we accept the positive dependence involved
in lifelong learning and growing, and help one another deal with it
So the important thing is not that everyone gets to stand on their own
two feet and turns into a reliable 'independent' consumer and
contributor to the GNP. What we expect from each other in a generous and
grown-up society is much more to do with all of us learning how to ask
from each other, how to receive from each other, how to depend on the
generosity of those who love us and stand alongside us. And that again
means a particular care for those who need us most, who need us to
secure their place and guarantee that there is nourishment and stability
for them. As we learn how to be gratefully dependent, we learn how to
attend to and respond to the dependence of others. Perhaps by God's
grace we shall learn in this way how to create a society in which real
dependence is celebrated and safeguarded, not regarded with
embarrassment or abused by the powerful and greedy.
God has spoken through a Son. He has called us all to become children at
the cradle of the Son, the Word made flesh, so that we may grow into a
glory that even the angels wonder at. To all who accept him he gives
power and authority to become children of God, learning and growing into
endless life and joy.
Copyright © 2009 Rowan Williams
Background MIDI - Mary Did You Know?