Christmas is about family. This seems like a rather obvious statement. Of course Christmas is about family. We have visions of what a perfect Christmas should look like: everyone gathered together in one home, all bundled up in warm fuzzy sweaters—maybe even those infamous ugly Christmas sweaters—to go outside and play in the snow, and to be greeted by Grandma with fresh-baked cookies and hot chocolate when you come inside. Then everyone cleans up and gets dressed in beautiful Christmas dresses and suits to come to worship on Christmas Eve, singing carols and praising God for sending little baby Jesus to Mary, who, with Joseph, is huddled in a cold barn with her newborn baby, all alone except for the shepherds who the angels hustle off of their hills and who leave their sheep to come and worship Jesus. Then, the family returns home, where the children go to sleep, Santa comes during the night, and in the morning, everyone gathers around the tree to open gifts. This picture sounds like the American dream of what Christmas should be like, doesn’t it?
Well, it’s true, Christmas is about family. But family isn’t always perfect like that, is it? Families come in all shapes and sizes: divorces and remarriages make blended families; families may be celebrating a Christmas without someone they love because of death or illness or distance; and even in families that are “whole,” there may be disagreements, resentments, and arguments simmering just under the surface, ready to be whipped out if the wrong person says the wrong thing at the wrong time. Then there may be the accident, like in the movie, “A Christmas Story,” where the neighborhood dogs get in and eat the perfectly cooked turkey, forcing the family to go out for Chinese food on Christmas Day. Christmas is rarely perfect.
And you know what? That’s okay. Because the day when Jesus was born was not perfect, either. Because of a far-off distant governmental order to go and register for taxation, Joseph and a heavily pregnant Mary had to travel, by foot, 70 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem. When I was young, I took horseback riding lessons, and during one lesson, my instructor, who was eight months pregnant at the time, got up on a horse who was misbehaving for a student to try and get him to behave. We all thought she was going to give birth at that moment! Thankfully, she didn’t, but that’s the image of Mary that we should have: walking 70 miles, maybe riding a donkey, from Nazareth to Bethlehem. No wonder she was ready to give birth by the time they got to Bethlehem!
But, here’s the thing: when Mary and Joseph got to Bethlehem, they were not alone. Luke tells us that they went to Bethlehem because Joseph was of the house and family of David, and Bethlehem was David’s hometown. We don’t know what made Joseph relocate from Bethlehem to Nazareth in the first place, but it was certain that there were still members of the extended family living in Bethlehem. And our image of the holy couple being all alone in a stable comes, in part, from a mistranslation of the Greek: the word kataluma in Greek has been translated into English as “inn” for many centuries, and we modern English-speakers picture a quaint little motel with an innkeeper flashing a sign in the couple’s faces saying “no vacancy”. But the word kataluma should not be translated as “inn,” and if Joseph was returning to his family home in Bethlehem, no way would he and Mary have stayed at an inn. Inns in those days were more like saloons were out here in the Old West. No, kataluma more properly means “guest room”. There was no place for Mary and Joseph in the guest room in the family home, because it was already crowded with other out-of-town members of the family who had come to be registered. And so, when it was clear that Mary was about to have her baby, she went to the part of the house where the animals were kept. There she would have had more room to have her child. But, family would have been nearby, and they probably would have sent for a midwife to help her out.
I tell you this not to ruin anyone’s idea of what Jesus’ birth was like, but to bring deeper meaning to this story for you. What does it mean for us to imagine Jesus being born in the midst of family? How would Joseph have introduced Mary to his family: “Hey, everyone, I want you to meet Mary. Oh, by the way, no, we’re not married yet. Yes, she’s pregnant, but no, the baby’s not mine. An angel of the Lord came and told her that it was God’s Son. I believe her, and I’m going to claim the baby and be his father here on earth.” Well, how would something like that go over in your family? Not well, I’m guessing. However “not well” it would go over in your own family, multiply that by about 100 times, and you’ll get an idea of how “not well” that would go over in a Jewish family living in Judea in the first century.
Luke, though, leaves all of that to our imagination, and zeroes in on the moment of birth. In a short, two-sentence description, he says, “While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the kataluma, the guest room.” I think that, when Mary went into labor, all questions, doubts, and possible condemnations by the family were put aside as everyone became tense with waiting and anticipation: Would Mary survive the labor? How about the baby? Would the baby indeed be a boy, as Joseph said? And even with these strange circumstances surrounding Mary and Joseph, shouldn’t we welcome the baby as one of our family, even as Joseph already has? After all, it’s not the baby’s fault. And so, when the cry of a healthy baby rings out from the area where the animals are, the whole family breathes a sigh of relief, and, one by one, begins to crowd into the area to take a look.
But then, as Joseph’s family surrounds the happy couple, oo-ing and ah-ing over how cute the little baby Jesus is, and maybe helping Mary to be more comfortable—and just when those previous questions and doubts are coming back to the surface–there is a knock at the door. When the door is opened, in come a group of dusty, dirty shepherds, perhaps with a stray lamb or two frolicking at their feet. Now, remember, this is a moment for family—how would you feel if, moments after your child had been born, the neighbors who you don’t know very well, if at all, came knocking on the door asking to see the baby? That’s what these shepherds do, though—and they tell an incredible story about angels coming to announce this baby’s birth—the baby that Joseph’s family probably suspects is the result of Mary sleeping around, because who would believe this fantastic story about the baby being God’s Son? But that’s exactly the message that the shepherds come with: the angels told them that this baby is the Savior, the Messiah, the Lord. Part of me wonders now if the shepherds served more than one purpose for God: not only to worship Jesus, not only to tell others about Jesus, but also to give proof to Joseph’s family that the story that Mary and Joseph told about Jesus was true.
So, what does all of this mean for us? It means that Jesus came, not into a perfect, Christmas-card family, but he came as a baby to an unwed young mother. Jesus came, not to the halls of royal power, but to a poor and insignificant family in the backwater Roman province known as Judea. And Jesus came, not just for his family, but for those shepherds out on the hills who were intruding on what should have been a private family moment. Jesus comes today for everyone: those who seem like they have it all together and those who think that if one more bad thing happens to them, they’re going to call it quits; those who have absolutely nothing in life as well as those who want for nothing; those who have the perfect family and those who have been divorced three times and are estranged from their current spouse; the citizen of this country as well as the immigrant and the refugee. God came down to Earth as a baby, born of a human mother, to show us what true love and mercy is. And all flesh—ALL FLESH—has seen and will see God’s salvation.
So, don’t worry if you don’t have the perfect Christmas. Don’t worry if family arguments cloud memories of Christmas. Jesus is still there with you, offering forgiveness and reconciliation. If you’re sad because you’re missing someone important this holiday, it’s okay to be sad, for Jesus is still there with you, and he mourns with you. Jesus has come for you and for me, giving salvation and healing, and welcoming all of us into his family to greet him, no matter who we are, where we’ve come from, or where we are in our life’s journey. Come and worship the newborn King. Come and be part of Jesus’ family. Amen.