Artwork: Daniel Bonnell, The Young Holy Family
Friends, I hope you’re enjoying your Christmas celebration with family in whatever way possible. Amy and I and the girls have been spending quite a bit of time on Zoom with our family in Kingston, Hamilton and India. It’s certainly not the same as an in-person gathering – and we lament that hard reality, as I’m sure you do – yet we give thanks for the blessings to be found in a smaller, quieter Christmas.
Christmas is indeed about family, but what kind of family?
Today is sometimes called 'Holy Family Sunday.' But I worry that when we look at Jesus, Mary and Joseph, we imagine a picture-perfect family – like those nice family photos people post on Facebook or send through the mail along with their Christmas letter. Of course those annual Christmas letters always tend to focus on the positives of the past year, but this year, I think, in our letters and conversations more generally, people have more been willing than usual to give a fuller picture, a more realistic assessment of their life and its struggles – be they financial, medical, or relational.
What struggles are you and your family dealing with today?
We’re in good company today because the Holy Family was not picture-perfect either.
Matthew’s Gospel introduces us to Joseph at the moment when he decides he is going to divorce Mary his betrothed (Matt. 1:18-25). She had become pregnant during their engagement – and not by him! – so it would seem that she had either been unfaithful or had been raped. But being a good man and unwilling to put Mary to shame, Joseph resolved to divorce her quietly, that is, without making a public spectacle and trial which would have likely resulted in her death.
But as Joseph considered these things, an angel, a messenger from heaven appears and assures him that the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. Imagine what Joseph thought and the conversations he had with Mary as they grappled with this astounding miracle! Do you think they shared this news with their family? If so, would anyone have believed them?
To all outward appearances, the pregnancy was conceived out-of-wedlock, the child thus illegitimate. So there’s reason to believe the Holy Family would have been ostracized by their extended family and community.
Certainly it was an unwanted pregnancy in the eyes of Herod the King. In two weeks we’ll read the story of how Herod hears of the birth of this new King, Jesus the Messiah, sees it as a threat to his own power and responds with murderous rage.
So the Holy Family spent the next few years as fugitives and refugees. They were homeless in a foreign country, probably secure, well-paying work. Hardly a picture-perfect family situation!
And as if that weren’t enough, then there’s the ancestry of the Holy Family. Matthew’s Gospel begins with the genealogy of Jesus where we he goes out of His way to emphasize that the family tree of Jesus is full of adulterers, murderers, rapists, idolaters and outsiders (Matt. 1:1-17).
Christmas is about family, but what kind of family?
Now Jesus Himself is perfect, perfect God and perfect man, yet clearly He was not born into a perfect world, family, or circumstances. This is the truth of the incarnation – Jesus, the only-begotten Son of God, is our Emmanuel, God-with-us. Truly God-with-us – in all of our struggles, even in our dysfunctional family situations. God Himself has assumed and lived through it all.
Christmas is about family, but what kind of family?
The Collect or prayer for Christmas reminds us that we have been adopted into the family of God. By God’s grace, we have been made the children of God the Father, through Jesus our elder brother and now share in the love between them, the Holy Spirit.
This is a major emphasis in the writings of St. John the Apostle and Evangelist, whom we celebrate in the church calendar today. In his first letter, which we heard from today, John tells us that we have fellowship with God the Father and God the Son (1 John 1:1-5).
In the great Christmas Eve gospel from the beginning of John's Gospel, we are told how all who receive Jesus, who believe in His Name, are given the right to become the children of God, who are born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
And towards the end of John’s Gospel, as Jesus dies on the cross, He looks down at His mother and John himself standing below and says to His mother, Woman behold your son, and to John, Behold your mother. With His dying breath, Jesus formed the new family of God, the Church (John 19:26-27).
This family of God is not yet perfect. The Church is indeed dysfunctional, full of all sorts, many criminals and adulterers, the weak and the broken, foolish and despised. What kind of family is this?
It is the family of those who will accept adoption, forgiveness and grace through Jesus Christ. This is the family of the forgiven children of God. The Church is the family of God - and our purpose is to draw all people together into this family. It is not a closed family, for we are all members only by adoption, and it is not a perfect family, for we are all members only by forgiveness.
And if God so owns and forgives us as his children, so we are bound to accept and forgive one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, in the family of God.
The Holy Family isn’t perfect, our own families are not perfect, and our Church family isn’t perfect.
And yet God has used and continues to use these as means of His presence with us and as vessels of our sanctification and salvation.
So Christmas is indeed about family, but what kind of family? A family that is open and forgiving in the midst of the brokenness, struggles and dysfunctions of this world. Therein - and nowhere else - is where we find holiness: in our adoption by God’s grace and our daily renewal by the love of His Holy Spirit.
Sources consulted and quoted: