The true meaning of Christmas is largely ignored by many people these days. But nevertheless, it still seems to be a time when people like to get together in a spirit of festivity. It’s a chance for families to gather from far and wide to spend some time together. It’s a great blessing for people to see each other again; for those children who’ve flown the nest to come back to the family home, and for grandparents, aunts and uncles to gather and catch up on the news of the past months.
But whether people come together to celebrate the birth of our Lord, or simply get together to see each other and exchange gifts, Christmas can be a mixed time for many. When families get together, in can be as much an occasion of difficulty as joy. Old rivalries and tensions may resurface, and arguments flare up as the Christmas wine loosens the shackles of politeness and self-control. And for others, there is the pain of loneliness arising from family breakup, the isolation brought about by mental or physical sickness, or distance from loved ones which makes Christmas something to be endured. Rosy cheeked smiling faces of people in Christmas jumpers can seem a world away from reality.
It’s important then for us to remember that very soon after the birth of our saviour in the manger in Bethlehem, the Holy Family’s life is in crisis. The peace and stillness of the stable is brought to an abrupt end with the news that Herod is in search of Jesus, and plans to kill him. Joseph takes Mary and Jesus by night on a journey to safety in Egypt. They become refugees, dwelling in a strange land.
Perhaps one of the most striking messages of the story of Christmas then, is that family life doesn’t always run smoothly even for this most special of families. Right from the very beginning, there is struggle, hardship, and the need for extraordinary courage and endurance in the face of these difficulties. How true does this seem of your own experience of family life? Most of our families will not face the same kind of difficulties as the Holy Family, but many and varied trials and struggles will come.
If we are to think of the Holy Family as any kind of model for family life – and I think we should - I would like to suggest that this example is not best shown in the manger scene, but rather in the flight to Egypt. Mary and Joseph are model parents because of their immediate response to the needs of the baby Jesus. Responding to the angel’s message, they will do anything to ensure his safety. Good parents always do everything they can to ensure the wellbeing of their children. This is the sacrifice at the heart of parenthood. Mary and Joseph did everything that they could, and yet as they set out for Egypt, unsure of the burdens and difficulties that they face. But they set out anyway.
The journey of family life is always a journey into the unknown. Parents always have hopes and dreams for the future of their children. Children in turn have their own hopes and dreams. Yet as day to day life passes; as months become years and years become decades, reality may well take a very different trajectory. Life is a great mystery, and it sometimes throws all kinds of difficult things our way. And then of course there’s the problem of sin, which disrupts and breaks down relationships, and threatens the bonds of love which keep us together.
But if we listen to the message of the good news of salvation, which comes to us in Jesus Christ, we hear that at the heart of loving is mercy and forgiveness. If we have God-like expectations of our families, then we’re surely going to be hurt and disappointed at some point. But if we are merciful and forgive, those very moments of difficulty and sin can be transformed by the grace of God to renew and strengthen the bonds of love.
Perhaps that sounds rather too simplistic or idealistic – until, perhaps, we realise that striving to live in family life in the light of the Gospel message takes faith, courage and trust in what God has done for us through that child in the manger.