One criticism that is often heard at this time of year in churches is that we have lost the true meaning of Christmas. It is bandied around in reference to the consumerist nature of the season, although this can be true for any holiday in this present day and age. Then there is the Christmas card issue; not many snowmen around in Bethlehem. However, one aspect that everyone seems to agree on is that family is hugely important when celebrating at this time of year.
The scene that is set before us at Christmas is one of a family together, happily sharing gifts and enjoying a shared meal. There are laughs aplenty; elderly relatives falling asleep as the darkness draws in. Everyone appreciating the company of their loved ones and sharing in a moment that only occurs once a year. It even extends to the Nativity scene. Mary and Joseph huddled over the manager with the shepherds, wise men and even the animals fully participating in the magical moment, silently adoring the new baby.
I am blessed to have two brothers and two sisters, all of whom are younger than me, and now I have four children of my own and can safely say that this is not the full story! As a child, the magic of Christmas morning leads to a lot of tiredness come the afternoon. Parents can usually tell when that time is approaching, but the inevitability cannot be stopped due to the preparations for dinner overrunning. There will be some stonking arguments as the forced attendance begins to take its toll on the older members of the family as you begin to realise why you only see your great uncle once a year. Maybe it is just my family, but let’s assume it’s not!
Jesus’ family must have been very similar. Right back at the start, Mary told Joseph she was pregnant with the Son of God. The Gospel does not record the exact conversation but you can kind of imagine how that must have gone. He then tries to call off the wedding, but changes his mind because of an angel in a dream. Their hearts must have been deeply wounded and their trust in each other shaken. Also their families, in the tradition of the time, would have disowned both of them; having a child outside wedlock could get the women stoned, so no grandparents babysitting service.
Then King Herod calls a census so they have to journey back to Bethlehem. Google maps suggests a 103 mile walking route. Long journeys with your family and no headphones; I don’t need to go on! And yet when they finally arrive, they have forgotten to book a room and no-one is keen to be associated with them. Mary’s contractions start and Joseph presents a stable, or more likely a cave filled with livestock, as their only option. The idea of a home birth scares me but on the floor covered in excrement with live animals is another level! Being the parents of Jesus or not, just meekly smiling at each other and saying it is alright does not seem so likely.
The problems did not stop after the birth. Random strangers turn up offering gifts and pose for the photo opportunity for the Christmas cards. They are then forced to move 5000 miles to a foreign country; any move is stressful even within the same street. When Jesus is 12, they manage to lose him for a whole day! At some point in His early life, tradition holds that Joseph dies so now they are a one parent family; a single mum was particularly frowned upon in those times. As a final straw, during Jesus’ ministry his extended family shows up and try to get Him institutionalised! This was not a functional family; it was a normal family.
However I believe that is the point. Jesus could have chosen to walk in from the desert as a man ready to begin his ministry, but instead chose to grow and learn as part of a family; an arguing, hurting, but loving family. Family was of such importance to him that on the cross He was making arrangements for someone to look after His mother. He wanted to reveal to us that being part of a family is crucial; to help us to understand what true love looks like. Yes, sometimes it is tough and we get rubbed up the wrong way, but it is this that rubs off our rough edges. It is not the smiling animals looking over a shining child as adoring parents look on. It is in the rough and ready world of our vast array of family situations, in the arguments, the make-ups, the happy games, the sulks, the difficulties and the joy where we grow and learn to love.