At Christmas we are flooded with reminders of the importance of family and gathering with loved ones. Random Chevrolet commercials can even leave us in tears thinking about family. Christmas songs like All I Want for Christmas is You; I’ll be Home for Christmas, Blue Christmas, or White Christmas all send the message that a real Christmas is about being at home with family, ideally trapped in the snow.
I am not complaining. I love Christmas and the family traditions of Christmas. We need reminders of the importance of family. Some of my best memories are of Christmas with my family in my childhood home.
I have wondered though why at Christmas we hardly ever hear anything about Church. We don’t even hear about the importance of church from churches. The church I grew up in would even cancel Sunday morning worship if Christmas Day fell on a Sunday. We hear about Jesus and the story of his birth and the amazing faith of Mary and Joseph but not much at all about the need to gather for worship in light of it.
When I recently asked a friend at the YMCA if his church had a Christmas Eve service, I felt a slight reprimand in his voice when he stated emphatically that, “Christmas is about family.” It’s a nice sentiment, but is it really true? Christmas is good time for families to come together, this is true. It is true that Christmas can be a time of joy for families. But it is not true that Christmas is about family.
It is easy to miss that Mary and Joseph were not married when they traveled to Bethlehem. There was nothing normal about this situation in the ancient world. They never would have traveled alone together before their wedding if everything had been fine with the extended family. Mary was expecting to give birth with female members of her extended family present to help, instead she gave birth alone with Joseph in a stable. When they finally leave Bethlehem, they do not return home, but go to live in a new village. It is ironic that we call them the Holy Family, but when the story begins, they don’t yet qualify as a family by some standards.
We miss the obvious pain and the tension with their families that is laying just under the surface of the Christmas story because we are not ancient Jews. But if we miss that we will miss the point. The irregularity of their situation is part of the reason that Mary is praised for her faith. This is why Joseph was called a good man and a man of courage. Mary and Joseph accepting the message of the angels also meant accepting ridicule, rejection, rumor and shame from family.
Mary, the young woman whose simple reply to the angel was, “Let it be to me as you have said,” has come to be called Theotokos by Christians. This is a Greek title that when translated means God-Bearer or Mother of God. When I first learned this designation, I struggled with the enormity of it. But this is the mystery of Christmas. God has come to dwell among us. Emmanuel, God with us, is born in stable because there was no room in the inn. Mary was, and is, His mother. This is what Christmas is about. The incomprehensible mystery that God would choose to dwell with us and among us. That because of the incarnation the ordinary could be holy and united with the Creator. This is certainly worth God’s people coming together to sing and pray and hear the story again.