“So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph and the babe lying in the manger.” –Luke 2:16
Just hearing those words evokes the most universal and romantic tradition of Christmas. “Mary and Joseph and the babe” represent such an enduring image of Christmas that even the pervasive commercialism of the season cannot diminish the inspiration of family gathered. Yes, I am sure we would all agree that foremost, Christmas is about family–whatever the configuration or definition, conventional or otherwise. Christmas as tradition is about being together with those we love; the warm reassurance that no matter what has happened we are part of one another. So on cards, tree ornaments, seasonal art, in churches and pageants, we see the holy family.
I suspect that in our homes, as we gather around our Christmas dinner tables, as we watch children around gift-laden Christmas trees, as we gather around pianos or other sources of music to sing carols with dear friends and loved ones, we are–at least in a romantic sense–a semblance of the holy family. No matter how grand or humble our gathering, whether we are people of Christian faith or not, what makes Christmas as tradition most joyous for us is the sense home and family. Conversely, what makes Christmas most dreadful for us is not to be with those we love and most care about. Even the most pious among us cannot resist a moist eye when we hear the secular carol “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.” Yes, Christmas is to be with those we love.
Perhaps one of the most devastating Christmases for me was when my daughter, who was in love, announced that she would spend Christmas with her boyfriend and his family. How could there be Christmas for me without her. I looked at our crèche scene: Mary, Joseph and the child–the children have to be there! We could only be the “holy family” if all the family were there! How could she really enjoy the true spirit of Christmas with strangers? Well, that was probably ten years ago; as you can see, I still have not gotten over it! Yes, when we think of Christmas from a traditional perspective, it is about love–familial love, the love of family.
Now, I do believe that traditions can be spiritual. Spiritual because traditions find their life in a depth of human need. We may not know or fully understand the story that inspired the tradition, but something in it (intended or not) speaks to, even inspires the human soul, from generation to generation. On the other hand, spiritually speaking, Christian faith is different from tradition. Faith is spiritual because it speaks of God–God’s intent or God’s will and not simply human sentiment. Faith does not necessarily contradict tradition but, rather, faith transcends the romanticism of tradition by asking a deeper question: “What more is God saying in images which so inspire us?”
To look at the Christmas story from a faith perspective is to discover the crèche; that Christmas speaks not just about familial love but divine love, a love embracing more than Mary, Joseph and their child. God’s love may be born in the womb of family and loving community, but it is more. As John 3:16 teaches, it is about “God so loving the world”–not about God only loving the holy family, or your family or my family, but the world. Remember, the angels heralded peace among all people not just “our people.” Christmas faith tells us God cares not just about us but also the world beyond us.
The Christmas story as faith is a crèche! It is about divine love that reached out through the holy family to receive lowly shepherds–among the most voiceless and poor of their time. This is the love that eventually received the magi, foreigners and aliens, men of non-Jewish culture and religion, men of a strange science. By the grace of God, the crèche scene is about more than Mary, Joseph and the baby. It is about divine love–about “Joy to the World.” Yes, this is the love that was born on Christmas. This is the Jesus who grew to respect the dignity of every human being, to proclaim justice and fairness. This is the Jesus who lived with moral courage and compassion as more than good ethics or good character, but as a matter of faith. This is the image of Christmas that should most inspire our holiday imagination.
Dr. Douglas Major, our choirmaster, is often inspired through the Christmas story to ask about the people who do not speak or appear in the scenes of the Christmas story. This year he has been pondering those shepherds who had to stay with the sheep. His new composition, to be sung a little later, imagines a little boy left with the lonely task of tending the sheep. I can imagine him keeping a lonely watch in the dark cold night while the other shepherds have run off with “Molder and Scully” to investigate a message from celestial beings. But Dr. Major envisions that the God of heaven, rejoicing at the birth of his only begotten son, did not forget the poor shepherd boy, alone in the night, but sends angelic messengers to minister to him.
So, I ask you this Christmas morning, how does the comfort and joy of your family gathered shape your faith imaginations? Angel means messenger. How do we share the good news of love and peace? Over the holidays, do we find time to receive or serve the stranger; to teach the children to serve others; to respect the dignity of every human being? Do our lives show them how to live lives concerned with justice, fairness and compassion? Are they learning, as Jesus surely learned from Mary and Joseph, the joy of sharing and giving as well as receiving; or are we simply satisfied with the gift of family alone? Does Christmas in your home include a prayerful desire to find the lonely shepherd boy, to remember the needy, the abandoned, the unloved?
In fact, I wonder if the tradition of your Christmas gathering includes prayer? Do our Christmas prayers remember the sick and the friendless; those in danger, sorrow, or any kind of need or trouble? Remember, the babe in the manger is not the Messiah simply because he was born on Christmas Day. He is remembered not because he belonged to a nuclear family–attentive, loving parents who also love each other dearly. No, he is remembered because he grew to be a man of love, of courage, of compassion; a man of justice, a man of faith, who reached out to others.
The divinity we see in Jesus Christ our Lord is not simply in the miracle of his beginnings but in the witness and example of his life. For this to happen there must have been more to the story of the holy family than romantic comfort of survival and familial love. There had to be faithful teaching and nurturing of the soul of this babe. As St. Luke records Jesus’ childhood (2:52): “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.” So, Christians, what does the gathering of your family or intimate activities of your holiday have to say about the faith of Christmas? What do any of our gatherings say about divine love for the world? Is our holiday celebration just an image of the holy family or is it more a crèche scene, touching and being touched by those whose culture, race, experience or needs may be different?
We have a wonderful Cathedral elementary school, Beauvoir, French for “Beautiful view.” But, the beautiful view of life and faith they experience is not simply the bucolic garden of academic and cultural privilege provided by teachers and parents. It is a view of service and respect for humanity. On one of my first visits to Beauvoir, I was introduced to one of their many charitable projects. The particular project was making sandwiches as part of lunch meal for the homeless. As I joined with the children, parents and teachers at the assembly table, I thought, how dear! But, then I noticed the children loading buses to go with teachers and parents actually to share the lunches with homeless families and individuals; to be with them, to meet them, to see them as human beings with smiles as well as pain, with dreams as well as disappointments–people who beneath their circumstances were just like them. Our children are never the same after such experiences.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, “More than being my brother’s keeper, I must understand that I am my brother’s brother.” This is the love of God, the faith that must transcend and broaden the traditional sense of Christmas as being only about family and those familiar to us. As people of faith our prayers of the season must remember that our world is not at peace with itself or with God; the days of our celebration must include acts of charity; and our choice of fellowship and worship events should allow us to encounter those who in someway are different but share the hope. For you see, when faith transcends tradition, we cannot imagine our own family crèche scene without the inclusion of poor and lowly shepherds, or without wise men and wise women who may seem by culture and race, strangers “from afar.” Yet, as we receive shepherds and magi we may discover a miracle of the Christmas story, that like us, they too are seeking the love of God.
Yes, Christmas is about family love. But, it is essentially something significantly more: The love of God for us and for the world. So on this Christmas day, allow me to offer this little prayer from the Prayer Book, for you and for me, that God might enable us all to grow in the true faith of Christmas. Let us pray: “[Dear God, in this Christmas season] enrich our lives by ever-widening circles of fellowship, and show us your presence in those who differ most from us, until our knowledge of your love is made perfect in our love for all your children; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.</P