Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Dads are important to the Christmas message too.

25 December 2007 09:00

Dads are important to the Christmas message too, says the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Rev Graham James.

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Back in January 1951 in a cottage hospital in the far south west of England, a father wanted to be present at the birth of his second child.

Whoever was in charge of the labour ward considered fathers a nuisance. They simply got in the way. So at my birth (for it was me!) my dad wasn't there. It was nearly twenty-four hours later that he first saw me. We were very close so I don't think it affected our relationship. But he always felt a strange deprivation at missing the birth of his children.

By October 1980 things had changed. That was when our first child, Rebecca, was born. By then fathers were expected to be present. We were even encouraged to go to one or two antenatal classes. I've never forgotten feeling slightly intimidated in a room full of pregnant women. They seemed so powerful. They were in control of the future as they prepared to give birth to the next generation. I don't think I paid much attention to the instructions. Julie, my wife, was working as a midwife at that very hospital. I assumed she would tell me what to do when the time came. She did!

In those days I was working as a vicar in Welwyn Garden City. One Saturday evening we had a big church dinner for 200 people. It was a great celebration. I arrived home just before midnight, exhausted but elated. My wife's first words to me were “Get me to the hospital, the baby's coming”.

It wasn't an easy birth. Just before 6am Rebecca was born. That gave me time to get back and take the 8am service. (My children have helpfully fitted in their births with my diary). The previous evening we'd hoped for new life in the parish. I told the congregation that the vicarage family had done its bit already.

It was the deepest joy to be present at the birth of my children. I'm not sure I was much use. But it taught me a lot about the close connection between suffering and joy.

We know nothing about how long Mary was in labour before Jesus was born. The circumstances were hardly ideal. But Jesus isn't unique simply because he came into the world in rather mucky surroundings without medical assistance. That's been true for most children When ours were born, we were surrounded by every sort of medical facility. Even so, I realised a woman's labour is well named. Hard work and anguish lined Julie's face. But what amazed me was the complete change in her expression as soon as Rebecca was put into her arms. It's an occupational hazard to think of biblical verses at such times. I couldn't get a verse from John's gospel out of my mind.

“When a woman is in labour, she has pain because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a child into the world” (John 16.21)

Our Christmas cribs, nativity plays, and even some of the carols we sing sidestep Mary's anguished labour. That's a pity. And Joseph is often given only a bit part. He must have fulfilled the role of midwife, to a degree I would have found frightening. The circumstances are troubling too. Displaced from home, Mary and Joseph are in what must have seemed unfriendly territory. It was soon to become more hostile still. They escape and seek asylum in Egypt to avoid Herod's murderous threats.

Joseph takes centre stage in this bit of the story. Despite the tradition of the virgin birth in Christianity, Joseph isn't incidental. That's worth thinking about at a time when there seems to be confusion, even a crisis, about what it means to be a father today.

It's undeniable that there are plenty of loving single parent families where children flourish. Some single parents are the fathers, of course. But we seem to find it hard to define what it is that fathers bring to the family party.

People now say that as long as children are loved and wanted it doesn't matter about the gender or number of their parents. I find it hard to believe that fathers are quite so expendable.

To reduce fatherhood to the provision of a sperm bank would be a terrible impoverishment. The ideal must be that a child grows in relationship with both a man and a woman who love each other and love that child. We know that our human shortcomings mean that such families may even be a minority.

But we also know the social, economic and spiritual cost of family breakdown. The fact that children can flourish in other circumstances shouldn't make us shy to express an ideal. If we begin to marginalize fathers again, we'll regret it.

We should also remember the happiest families all have a shadow side. None of us avoids suffering. Grief, bereavement, arguments, tensions and rows - even the most loving of human families will experience them. Read the gospels and you'll find the family of Jesus wasn't exempt from these things.

The birth of Christ isn't some sort of sentimental escape from the world. God doesn't come to a perfect family where everything runs smoothly. Christians believe this is God's son being born, painfully and joyfully, as that weakest and most dependent of all creatures, a human baby. This is the birth of the love of God. That's the good news of Christmas.

We can scarcely get our minds round it. It reverses all our expectations. If God is almighty, how is his love found in this weak and vulnerable child? If God's fatherhood is like this, what might it say to those of us who are human fathers let alone mothers and children as well? It might just make us a bit more tender.

A very happy Christmas to you all.

+ Graham Norvic: The Rt. Revd. Graham James, Lord Bishop of Norwich

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