Christmas. Family. For many of us, these things go together almost instinctively. We may have warm memories of Christmases past. Some memories even live up to the media standard of a glowing hearth, hung with stockings, and a festive tree. The majority of the masses, though, don’t live in homes with majestic fireplaces (personally, I’d have to set fire to the couch). What then?
Not to worry. You can find everything you need on YouTube to have a Merry Virtual Christmas.
Hearth or no, Christmas can evoke a longing for home. Turn on the radio, cue up your Christmas playlist; you’ll hear all the familiar standards about families reuniting for their Christmas traditions. “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays.” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”
No matter how many times I hear it, Josh Groban’s plaintive version of the latter song always makes me misty-eyed. It’s a tribute to the men and women of the armed services, on deployment, separated from their loved ones at Christmas. In between choruses, we hear recordings of them sending Christmas greetings to their families. The song ends with a young girl’s voice sending wishes in the other direction: “We hope you come home soon.”
So here’s a thought. If we’re privileged enough to be able to gather with family at Christmas, let’s not take that gift for granted. Even if it means having to put aside some of our pet annoyances.
This year, I’m once again trying to wrap my mind around the miracle of the Incarnation. There is no way, of course, for us to actually understand how God could become human. In the end, despite all our pondering, we are left only with wonder.
But perhaps we can ponder this instead: was Jesus “home” for Christmas?
One of the major themes of the Gospel of John is the deep mutual love between the Father and the Son. As the story nears its climax, Jesus seems almost eager to complete his mission so he can return home to the Father.
Moreover, he undercuts taken-for-granted cultural assumptions about the priority of family ties. On one occasion, for example, Jesus was in the midst of a teaching session, when someone interrupted to tell him that his mother and brothers were standing outside and wanted to speak with him. The assumption seemed to be that Jesus would pause, then say to his hearers, “Excuse me a minute, folks. My family is here. I’ll be right back.”
But instead, Jesus pointed to his disciples and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matt 12:49-50, NRSV).
Matthew and Luke both record the episode. Neither, however, tells us if he then excused himself. Frankly, I can’t imagine that he simply left his family standing there for who knows how long. But he had made his point: the coming of the Christ meant the establishment of a new family under one Father.
That doesn’t make earthly families obsolete. Nor does it disrespect the practical and emotional importance of those ties. It does, however, put them in context. We are meant for more. Our family traditions should do more than try to recapture the remembered past; they should point our way into the imagined future.
So…was Jesus “home” for Christmas?
Here’s the “yes.” Several years ago, I wrote a post that argued that although the baby Jesus was laid in a manger, he was not born in a stable or cave behind a crowded inn. It’s much more likely that Jesus was born in a home, surrounded by relatives from Joseph’s side, who had gathered in Bethlehem for the imperial census.
If so, Mary and Joseph were not alone and rejected, but surrounded by family. Jesus was not born into the cold darkness of a stable, but the warm light of a house full of relatives. This is part of the Christmas miracle, one that should not be missed: Jesus wasn’t just born into a human body, but into an extended human family.
That, however, is not the end of the story.
For a time, first as a boy, and then as a man, Jesus walked among us. After his crucifixion and resurrection, he ascended to heaven to be lovingly reunited with his Father. But one day, he will return to complete the work he has already begun, the work to which we as his disciples have been commissioned.
As disciples, we must raise our families well and faithfully. To do so, we must have confidence in God’s future. That future, in all its incomprehensible glory, is this: God himself will make his home with us forever; our tears will be wiped away; death and pain will be no more (Rev 21:1-7).
In the meantime, we live as a people of hope. We are grateful for the love of our families, even as we acknowledge our brokenness and sin. In our homes and congregations, we stretch our imaginations into the future, knowing that it is God’s plan to make one new family that crosses social, tribal, ethnic, and national boundaries.
Jesus was home for Christmas inasmuch as the Incarnation brought a miracle of grace into the midst of a human family. But the larger story is that our true, heavenly home still awaits.
Christmas anticipates that day. God will dwell with his people, and no one will ever have to leave again.
Only then will we learn the truest meaning of “home.”