The human family, which is the fundamental building block of society, is under tremendous pressure these days, especially in the western world. The family is facing unprecedented changes and is spawning new mutations, which leave many of us confused and disoriented. As a consequence, we hear lots of talk about family values. Some see family values as a ready-made garment that can be purchased right off the rack and worn without alteration. One size fits all. The problem is that families today come in a wide variety of shapes and dimensions.

The reading from Luke’s gospel tonight centers on one particular family, a family that we know so well that we tend to take its unconventional nature for granted. Like many families today, Mary and Joseph and their new baby were caught in currents of change that were not of their own making and far beyond their capacity to control or comprehend. Their experience, I believe, reveals to us a core value that is the key to all other values and the source of creative, redemptive family life.

The little family that Christians call “holy” was formed under considerable stress. To begin with, the relationship between Mary and Joseph was totally ambiguous. The accounts in the New Testament are inconsistent and confusing. Luke’s narrative tells us that the couple was not yet married when they left Nazareth together. Matthew’s gospel indicates that they were married early on. In any case, Mary was pregnant. And both evangelists are clear that Joseph was not the father. This was hardly a model of family life according to the standards of the time.

Then the couple was compelled to take an arduous trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem, Joseph’s ancestral home, to be registered in a census. This was a journey of about a hundred miles over rough roads and sometimes steep terrain, not easy for a young woman on the verge of delivering her first child.

When they got to Bethlehem, there was no place to stay. It’s not surprising that the inn should be full during the kind of massive registration that was taking place. But what about Joseph’s relatives? There must have been cousins, at least, in this family seat. Why no offers of hospitality? Was the couple ashamed? Or were they being shunned? For whatever reasons, Mary, Joseph and the baby were outsiders, if not outcasts.

To make a difficult situation even more stressful, it was revealed to them in a vague and undefined way that their child would be a figure of huge significance for their nation and — as we now know — the world.

So how did this new family manage to live positively with their confusion and anxiety? How did they fashion a stable family life out of such an inauspicious beginning?

What gave them heart and hope was their firm belief that God was intimately connected with them in their struggles. In Luke’s gospel, a messenger from God announced to Mary — in what was, perhaps, a vision — that she would conceive a child even though she was a virgin. But not to worry, the angel assured her, the Lord was with her in a special way in this astounding circumstance. And Mary, we are told, accepted that guarantee with equanimity.

Matthew reports that Joseph was also visited by an angel. While he slept, a messenger from God came to him in a dream and encouraged him to marry his pregnant fiancée. “She will bear you a son,” he was told, “who shall be called Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” In that dream, Joseph heard words from the prophet Isaiah, with which he must have been familiar as a pious Jew, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel,” which Matthew makes sure we know means, God with us.

What astonishing news this was — and is — that the God of all creation would come into this world as the child of a fragile, unconventional family. Emmanuel, God with us, is a concept of truly cosmic proportions. It has deeply personal implications as well. Surely it was the knowledge that God was with them that enabled Joseph and Mary to endure the confusion of the early days of their marriage. The knowledge that God was with them helped them create a strong and secure family within which Jesus could grow into the incredibly powerful man that he became. The pervasive family value in Mary and Joseph’s Nazareth household was that God was present there. It was under the guidance of this indwelling God that the other values that shaped the family were fashioned within the context of their personal experiences and the religious and cultural norms of the day.

The incarnate God, who is always with us, is not an architect with a set of blueprints in an outstretched hand, but an animating, clarifying spirit who enables us to create out of the raw material of Holy Scripture, enduring tradition and actual human experience the values that are appropriate in our specific situation.

There are many kinds of families in this cathedral tonight, each, I imagine, striving to live into an array of redemptive moral values. This is not easy work. The configurations of families today are so varied that a “one-size-fits-all” approach to family values is as ineffective as it is unrealistic. The one constant that all of us can claim is that God is indeed with us. Acknowledging God’s presence and inviting that presence into our struggles makes all the difference in the world.

  • If you are in a family that is troubled because some members are alienated from one another and you don’t know what to do about it, God is with you.
  • If you and your family are sick with worry because a loved one is in daily danger in Afghanistan or Iraq and you don’t know how you can cope any longer, God is with you.
  • If you are an unmarried couple living together and are trying to sort out issues of commitment, God is with you.
  • If you are part of a family where relationships are sound and contentment abounds — and self-satisfaction lurks, God is with you.
  • If you are a single parent, stressed out with work and endless family demands and are sometimes at your wits end, God is with you.
  • If you are in a committed same-gender relationship and yearn for the full acceptance of your family or community, God is with you.
  • If you are a grieving widow or widower, who needs to build a new life for yourself but find it hard to get started, God is with you.
  • If you are a childless couple who have been through all of the fertilization options and can’t decide whether or not to adopt, God is with you.
  • If you are going into or coming out of a divorce and are trying to understand what “family” means now, God is with you.
  • If none of these imaginings comes close to describing your situation, God is with you too, as you seek to find a moral balance to your life.

To me, the greatest of the Advent hymns is the powerful Latin classic from the ninth century, “O come, O come, Emmanuel.” The hymn was prompted by the words of Isaiah — the same words recalled to Joseph in his dream. It rehearses the yearning of Israel for God’s coming into the world to dispel all darkness, distress, division, disorder, and death.

Advent is over now. God is with us in a new way. So perhaps that Advent hymn of troubled expectation could become a Christmas hymn by adding a stanza of joyous fulfillment.

You come, you come, Emmanuel,
you come within our families to dwell;
you know our longing and our fear;
you give us hope and fill our hearts with cheer.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
has come to us, the heirs of Israel.