At this time of the year when families move heaven and earth to be together for a few days, it's appropriate that the Church presents us with the image of the Holy Family.
It may seem an artificial image, a concoction of the nice bits from all the gospels mixed with the Victorian stereotypes of father as provider, mother as homemaker, and a child who seems to be a cross between Little Lord Fauntleroy and Aristotle. But the Holy Family represents an ideal towards which all families should strive.
In the gospels we catch glimpses of Jesus's family which reflect the difficulties we all face in our own families. The Holy Family doesn't get off to an auspicious start. Joseph and Mary were engaged and he found out that his fiancée was pregnant and not by him! This would have been the holy family that never was if Joseph hadn't recognised the work of God in this event and married the pregnant Mary.
Matthew points out that Jesus's birth is the fulfilment of the prophecy of Isaiah which says a child is to be born whose name will be Emmanuel which means God-with-us. We know the Incarnation means that God is now on earth, improving life for everyone. But reading the daily newspapers might lead us to think that this was merely a pious hope and it's easy to become disillusioned. But the word gospel means Good News and as such they announce that the world has been redeemed, changed for the better, by the birth of God as a human being.
Matthew's story of the birth of Jesus begins with an angel telling Joseph that Mary will bear a son, who shall be called Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. Jesus actually means 'Saviour'. He continues:
All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: 'Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel.'
And he adds the footnote,
which means, God-with-us.
The rest of the gospel is an explanation of what it means to have God dwelling with us. Matthew depicts Mary and Joseph living a normal life in rural Bethlehem when they learn that they are to be the instrument of God's living with humanity. I'm sure Matthew envisages them expecting great changes for the better. After all, the Old Testament prophecies state that the lion will lie down with the lamb, swords will be beaten into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks. Peace is to mark the coming of the Messiah.
But the change is not what Mary and Joseph expect and the effect on Bethlehem is catastrophic. The secular powers, represented by King Herod, immediately bring greater oppression and atrocities. Joseph and Mary leave their settled life and become refugees. The birth of the Messiah also brings untold grief to many when Herod, in attempting to destroy Jesus, kills the newborn sons of every family in the region. The birth of the Prince of peace brings about death and conflict.
The birth of God as a man starkly contrasts what the human race is with what it could be. The story of the killing of the innocents and the flight into Egypt are all the more horrible when set alongside the yearning of humanity for something better they seemingly dash those hopes to the ground. Matthew's story of the goodness and love of God is told in its uncompromising effectiveness when that goodness and love are set in the context of human evil and hate.
But the Christmas story is not one of despair. The fact that some of us can look with longing towards a world that can be better means that it is possible for us to bring the light of Christ into it. We may not stop oppression but we don't collude with it. We may not put and end to greed but we refrain from contributing to the increasing difference between rich and poor. And when we put the fact of God dwelling alongside us against the callousness of the world, it shines all the brighter for us, strengthening our resolve to do everything in our power to bring about God's kingdom.
So with the passing of another Christmas season, let us go into the New Year strengthened by its message and with our hopes renewed for a better world.