This past Wednesday, I had the privilege of speaking at the student convocation at Pepperdine University. Worst moment: not realizing I had left my suitcase at home, until I was actually standing at the concierge desk at the hotel. Funniest moment: being introduced by the event coordinator, who noted the year I started teaching at Fuller, looked out at the college student audience, and quipped, “That’s before any of you were born.”
It was the last chapel service of the calendar year, so I was asked to blend the year’s theme of “belonging” with a Christmas message. I thought immediately of the post with which I began 2013, which suggested that the traditional way of reading Luke’s story of the nativity is probably all wrong: Joseph and Mary didn’t go to an inn, they weren’t left out in the cold, and Jesus wasn’t born in a stable. Instead, the manger in which he lay was inside a house, and the holy family was surrounded by relatives who were in Bethlehem for the census.
The story of Christmas isn’t the lonely tale of an exhausted young couple, strangers in town, turned aside by a grouchy innkeeper and heroically braving the elements to bear a child. The baby Jesus had a family and a place to call home.
But that doesn’t mean they all lived happily ever after.
This past quarter, I’ve listened to the sometimes harrowing stories my students have told of growing up in their families–reminding me, forcibly, that the places we should be able to count on for a stable sense of belonging, the places we should be able to call home, are often rife with brokenness. Their families are like so many of our families, even if we prefer to keep those stories secret.
We don’t know much about Jesus’ family life beyond Christmas, but it had its share of challenges. Joseph had to pack up his small family and flee to Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous rampage (Matt 2:13-18). Not long after, they moved back again to Nazareth (Matt 2:19-23), a backwater town in Galilee with a less than five-star tourist rating (John 1:45-46). Joseph probably died sometime after Jesus became a teenager (Luke 2:41-42; John 19:25-27), leaving him in the care of his widowed mother, contending with half-brothers who didn’t believe in him and who provoked him in dangerous ways (John 7:1-5).
But the image of the baby Jesus in a manger, surrounded by a bustling household full of relatives, is a hopeful one. For in taking on the form of our own human existence, the incarnate God was born into a home and a family. God entered our places of belonging, that they too might be included in the larger plan of redemption and restoration, the story that climaxes with God fully and finally making his home with his people, sweeping away sorrow and pain (Rev 21:3-4).
Our earthly families will always display both strength and weakness–movements toward wholeness and moments of great brokenness. But whatever trouble may befall our families this Christmas, let us take comfort in this: God knows that we all need a place to call home, and through the gift of his Spirit, gives us a foretaste of the day when he will make his home with us forever.