There’s lots of talk about family these days. And, I don’t only mean this “holiday season” of Thanksgiving and Christmas. For years now politicians, churches, and civil rights groups have been debating how we can and should define the important realities of marriage and family. These are important conversations for all of us to be having and they have to continue.
But, even with these ongoing conversations about family, Christmas brings “family” into focus in a special way. Think about how many holiday movies center on family: “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “A Christmas Story,” “The Family Stone,” “White Christmas,” and pretty much everything on the Hallmark Channel. And all of these movies celebrate some of the most beloved holiday traditions: gathering with family and friends, favorite foods and holiday treats, preparing for Santa, exchanging gifts, decorating, and Christmas music. And, these movies can even be a good reminder that Christmas can also be a bit stressful and that family squabbles can be just as much a holiday tradition as the Christmas tree or the wreathe on the door.
|Image from It's a Wonderful Life (1946)|
But, I want to propose that all of those great traditions and symbols aren’t really about Christmas. They are all ways that we celebrate the pre-Christmas holiday season that stretches from Thanksgiving (or before!) until December 25. After all, if we look around, don’t we already see “Christmas” decorations coming down and aren’t the Christmas songs disappearing from the airwaves? On December 26, Disneyland even posted a message on Facebook saying that “Christmas may be over, but there is still time to experience the holidays at the Disneyland Resort.”
Christmas only begins on December 25! And I think it’s important—even essential—that we remember that Christmas is only a beginning.
When I say this, I mean more than Christmas Day being the beginning of the Christmas season (which still lasts for two more weeks). But we should also remember that at that first Christmas two-thousand years ago, God began something new and it’s something that we should celebrate every Christmas and every day, including now: God became a human being. And why? So that each and every person, regardless of their gender, or race, or place in society would know how much they are loved. Saint Leo the Great, taught that God became human, so that humans might become like God. God became one of us, so that we might become like God.
And that, my friends, is what Christmas is about. These days aren’t just a celebration of Jesus’ birthday. Christmas is the time to remember and celebrate and glory in the truth that we are loved and redeemed and made holy because what it means to be a human being was forever changed by what began on that first Christmas.
And this brings us back to family.
When God came to live among us—in the birth of Jesus—he didn’t descend from the skies with angelic fanfare or with lightning and fire. Instead, God came as a baby: Jesus was born into a family as a helpless, vulnerable infant. For nine months he lived in Mary’s womb, protected and nourished by her body. And after he was born, Mary and Joseph watched over, fed, changed, bathed, and protected that tiny infant who was also the Lord of Heaven and earth.
|The Holy Family by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo|
The family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph knew about poverty, uncertainty, and fear. Mary was an unmarried teen mother. Joseph, the man Mary was engaged to, had to make a very difficult decision about whether or not to accept Mary and her child. Then, after Jesus was born in a barn in a strange town, this Holy Family became refugees, fleeing to Egypt so they could save the baby’s life. The Reading that we heard a few minutes ago from the Gospel of Luke also tells us that they were faithful, handing on the faith of their ancestors to this holy child. And Jesus “grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him” (Luke 2:40)
As surprising as it might seem, our families probably resemble that Holy Family more than the families of the classic Christmas movies. Many families—possibly even yours—have experienced pain and loss that are only intensified by the joy we see happening all around us. Maybe you have a family member or close friend who is fighting in a war or fighting cancer. Maybe old hurts are keeping you apart from a relative. Perhaps you’re watching your children and grandchildren deal with the fall-out of a failing (or failed) marriage.
As we celebrate our real-life Christmases, we can look to the struggles, joys, and faith of the Holy Family and, hopefully, take some comfort from the fact that they understand what it is we go through day after day. And part of the beauty of Christmas is that, because Jesus has transformed all of humanity by choosing to be born as one of us, all of our human family is part of his Holy Family. Those of us who are committed to a life of discipleship, can especially rejoice in the truth that we are all brothers and sisters in this beautiful and imperfect family.
The second reading that we heard this morning, from Paul’s letter to the Colossians could be said to be the rules for our family because they provide a blueprint for healthy relationships in every part of our life: “clothe yourselves with compassion, humility, meekness and patience. Bear with one another… forgive one another. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (3:12-14). Then, Paul brings everything together: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts… and be thankful” (v. 15).
Membership in God’s Holy Family is that simple… and that difficult. And we can feel confident that that Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph struggled at times to live these virtues. But, we can take some inspiration from their trials and their successes. The same gifts of faith, hope, and love that were offered to them are offered to us… especially, I think, at Christmas.
In a sermon for this feast, Deacon Greg Kandra shared these words: “When we find ourselves overwhelmed, we need to remember where we look today and remember to look toward the crèche. There is our model for living: Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. But we need to see them in full, remembering the closeness to the cross. That was their life and it’s ours, too. Yet, through all their hardships, in a time of anxiety and difficulty, persecution, and tragedy—a time very much like our own—they showed us how to be people of faith, people of forgiveness, and people of love.”
And that brings me to my final point. What happened—and happens—at Christmas is a beginning. Christmas isn’t an end in itself. The entire life of Jesus was leading to a Cross on a hill and an empty tomb. This is another lesson that Christmas has for us. Each day is a Christmas Day when we can welcome Christ into our hearts. Each day is an opportunity to begin again by allowing ourselves to be transformed by Christ’s renewing and re-creating love.
So, this year, as we continue to celebrate Christmas, remember that Holy Family and offer a prayer of thanks that you and I have become members of that same family. Take comfort in the knowledge that the Family understands the trials, challenges, and joys of you and those you love, and remember that every day is a Christmas Day full of possibility and the gift of always beginning again.