Like most people I know, I have some very special Christmas memories, and many of them revolve around presents: the treasure-hunt gift that culminated in my first basketball, wrapped and hidden in a garbage can, or the tiny little present hidden on the tree itself that proved to be the pin for a set of exercise weights my parents bought me. The time Grandpa and Grandma came to visit us in Brazil, and gave me two sets of Technic Legos. The pine-cone tree, and the tree made out of a branch that we had during some of our early Christmases in Brasil, where Douglas Firs were in short supply…. The list goes on.
But many of my most special memories focus not on the gifts, but on family. Driving around town to see Christmas lights. Sitting (or lying) in the living room, with all the lights turned off, except those on the Christmas tree, savoring the late hours of Christmas Eve. For me, Christmas was a sacred time for family.
And that is no coincidence. Charles Dickens, in so many ways responsible for the modern phenomenon of Christmas, pounds home the value and joy of Christmas as a fundamentally familial affair. Seemingly irrevocably stuck in his penny-hoarding ways, Ebenezer Scrooge is finally won over by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, leading to a frenzy of familial celebration.
And it isn’t just him, either, for the Gospels begin with family: Mary, Joseph and infant Jesus. Of course the stable isn’t necessarily the living room I think of when it comes to Christmas, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a tender time for this young family, as many famous paintings would have it—and all the more so if little baby Jesus, no crying he made (an apocryphal sentiment if ever there was one!)
Christmas is a time for unusual family.
But lest we get improperly sentimental and possibly heretical, idolizing a cult of family that has no place in the Bible, let’s pay closer attention to the kind of family the Christmas story has in mind—for this is an usual family if ever there was one.
First, we have an unwed mother. However pious, however holy Mary may have been–and I question neither of these–she was still an unwed mother in a time when such a fact was a matter of far greater stigma than it is today. Joseph, being a kind-hearted man, was going to quietly separate from her—that being one of the least harsh ways an honorable man could treat such a painful circumstance. What was God’s gift to Mary, the mother of Jesus? The stigma of being an unwed mother, the counter-thesis of the ideal family Christmas.
Second, we have Joseph, an adoptive father. This is not Joseph’s son, and while the town may not know this, he does. And yet, through a dream and an encounter with an angel, he embraces Mary and her son as his own. Christmas may be a time for family, but God’s gift to Joseph on this first Christmas was a child not his own, by his betrothed with whom he had not lain: a mixture of pain, stigma, loss and sacrifice.
Finally, we have Jesus. What sort of an experience was his first Christmas? I doubt he had the resources to be aware of and reflect upon his first Christmas, but aside from the warmth and closeness of his mother, he had none of the creaturely benefits that would come from being born amidst family and relatives—his parents seem to have been on their own in Bethlehem. Some gift!
Christmas is a time for family in an unusual way.
But this is just the beginning of our reflection on Christmas as a time for family. For Jesus, while he was an infant like every other infant, was simultaneously the eternally begotten Son of God. This was his first Christmas, but it was not the first day of life the ever-living God, through whom and for whom all creation had been made. Christmas, just as much as it was a family affair for Mary, Joseph and Jesus, was a family affair for the triune God.
Now of course God is not a family, so there are limits to how far we can take this. But Scripture does invite us to name God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and for the time being we will focus on the relationship of the Father and Son, as the source from which every family on earth derives its name (Eph. 3:15).
What was Christmas like for God? Was it a time of closeness, of intimacy? A time, if you will pardon this ridiculous image, of God in his living room, enjoying the fellowship and presence of the Son and the Spirit?
No, of course not. If anything, this was a time of loss. A time of grief. A time of “empty nest,” as much as such can occur in the life of the omnipresent God. For Christmas marks the sending of the Son into the Far Country, the beginning of Jesus’ movement unto death. This is not a living-room. It is a lonely departure gate on a cold December night, as a father waves goodbye to his son, who has just been drafted for war. Now of course the Father was, is and always will be present to his beloved Son, but this was something new in the life of God—this was the sending of the Son: for God so loved he gave, he sent! If anything, it was a loss, a self-emptying on the part of both Father and Son.
What is Christmas in the life of God? The beginning of a separation unto death.
But God’s ways never end in death, for this is the living God, who brought creation into existence that he might share himself with his creatures, giving us life. Christmas is the beginning of the way of death—but death unto life; Christmas is always aglow, not simply with candles, but with the impending sunrise of Easter morning.
Christmas, then, is a time for family—but it is a time for family in a very specific way. This is a time of the Father and Son entering an intentional path of loss and suffering, that many sons and daughters might be brought to share in this family; that the living room of God may be vastly expanded, and filled with the sounds of joy from God’s adopted children.
Christmas is indeed a time for family. But not just for our own nuclear families, which are not an end in themselves. We worship our families only at our great risk. Christmas is a time for expanded and reconstituted family. It is a time for adoption, and the celebration of adoption. It is a time for guests and strangers. A time for loss, as we give up treasured forms of quiet intimacy of the nuclear family, for the bustle, noise and uncomfortableness of a larger, expanded family. This above all, is the time for strangers, for those who are not our flesh and blood, to be brought into our homes, into our lives. God’s purpose for family is not that it be an end to itself, but an invitation and blessing to others.
This, more than anything, is the kind of thing we ought to treasure at Christmas. For we, the adopted sons and daughters of the God who gave his Son for us on that first Christmas, have a calling to be family, but the specific kind of family that is modeled after the one we see on that first Christmas morning—an unusual family, if ever there was one.
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