A quick trip to Starbucks this morning reminded me that –for all most of the world knows– the Christmas season is over. They’ve taken down most of their holiday displays. “Christmas Blend” is in the sale rack.
Know what’s funny, though? Technically, we’re still in the Christmas season. Yes, despite what you’ve been told, the Christmas season does not begin the day after Thanksgiving and end December 26th. That’s the Corporate Christmas. If you’re a fan of big corporations and conspicuous consumption, this is the season for you. (I’ve actually seen decorations in stores on my birthday: September 21st, the Fall Equinox!!!)
The actual Christmas season –at least the way it was originally celebrated– ran through January 6th; a day known as “Epiphany.” That’s the day dedicated to celebrating the coming of the Wise Men. The days between Christmas Day and Epiphany are precisely twelve in number.
Yep. That’s where the song comes from. (Didn’t you always wonder?)
During these last days of the Christmas season, I usually break out WH Auden’s “For The Time Being.” Re-reading it is one of my favorite holiday traditions. In my view, it’s one of the most beautiful Christmas writings ever created. Written in another dark time of war, it’s been read ever since by many, as a Christmas/Winter tradition. I strongly recommend it to everyone. Here’s a great review by an ethics professor from Loyola. It’s inspired many since it was first written over 50-years-ago; including the title of a CD title you may have heard of.
Every year, something new strikes me in this intelligent, thoughtful, and moving work. And this year, I have been drawn to the character of Joseph.
As you may remember, Joseph begins the story engaged to Mary. They are both nothing more than kids. The marriage is probably arranged. But then, the rumors start…rumors that she’s already pregnant, and that he isn’t the father. As the Bible tells it, an angel comes to Joseph in a dream to tell him to take Mary as his bride. The Bible never tells us Joseph’s state of mind. In fact, it doesn’t give him one single line of dialogue.
But WH Auden gives him plenty. At first, Joseph appears as an eager fiancee, ready to meet his intended. But the rumors whispered by the “Chorus” are already ringing in his ears:
My shoes were shined, my pants were cleaned and pressed,
And I was hurrying to meet
My own true Love …
Joseph, you have heard
What Mary says occurred;
Yes, it may be so.
Is it likely? No.”
So, Joseph is left with this doubts. And while impressed with “Gabriel’s” visit, he asks for a little “proof” he can hang his hat on:
All I ask is one
Important and elegant proof
That what my Love had done
Was really at your will
And that your will is Love.
No, you must believe;
Be silent, and sit still.”
Turns out, the way the Bible tells it, events unfold exactly as the angel says they will. So, Joseph takes Mary as his wife, and they become a family together. They become what the culture has know for two thousand years as the Holy Family.
Joseph has three more dreams, for a grand total of four. And in addition to thinking about Joseph, I’ve been thinking about these four dreams, and what they teach us about the Holy Family.
Here are the thoughts in my head today:
Who is the Holy Family in our world?
Where do WE see the Holy Family in our day?
What would they look like?
How can we welcome them into our world?
Let’s look at each dream, and what it tell us…
Dream One: The Holy Family was a Family of Choice
“But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”
Joseph is encouraged to take Mary as his wife and form a family of love, even if there is no family of biology. That’s the first clue about the Holy Family in our world today. Perhaps in our world today, the Holy Family is one where people come together out of choice –out of love– and out of commitment to each other, whether or not they are related to each other by blood.
Our church is about 35-40 percent gay and lesbian. (We’ve actually never done a “count.” It’s a guess…) So, we know something about “families of choice.” Those of us who are gay and lesbian form families of choice and infuse their homes with love. Those of who are traditional “blended families” do the same. Still more care for elderly relatives and in-laws; sometimes even people not related to us by blood. Families of choice come in all varieties these days.
In a sense, the original Holy Family was also a “family of choice.” As the Bible tells it, Mary was chosen to give birth to Jesus and she accepted that role. Joseph made the choice to be a father to Jesus, despite knowing he wasn’t part of creating the child. The story is clear that he treated Jesus as a son. The three of them together formed a beautiful bond as a family of choice.
So, perhaps one of the things we can do to welcome the Holy Family into our world is to celebrate and support all who form circles of love and families of choice, whether or not they are related by blood.
Dream Two: The Holy Family was a Migrant Family
“Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod.”
The second dream warns Joseph to get out of Dodge as quick as he can. King Herod is about to search for Jesus by moving house-to-house and killing every male child under age two. It’s a horrible story of empire-gone-wrong, of the hubris and fear of leaders who feel trapped in a corner, worried that their power is waning.
The only good option for the Holy Family seems to be to flee to Egypt. They apparently stay there in Egypt until King Herod has died. Quite literally, then, the Holy Family was an immigrant family.
The issue of immigration continues to be an incredible “hot button” issue in our world today. Last week, the Dallas Morning News named “the Illegal Immigrant” as their “Texan of the Year.”
I don’t know what all the political considerations were in Jesus’ time. I don’t know if the Holy Family was part of a greater migration. If there was social instability in Israel — if Herod really did try to kill all the boys under two — then it’s likely the Holy Family was not alone in its desire to flee.
But it does seem clear that they were welcomed into Egypt as temporary guests. Who knows if they were welcomed with gusto or grudgingly? With compassion or suspicion? Who knows what opportunities were there for them? The Bible doesn’t say. It just says they spent some time as immigrants in the land of Egypt.
If you look around the globe today, you find that migration is taking place on an almost unprecedented scale. My friend Laura Trent is a preacher in Vienna, Austria. She emailed recently about the phenomenon of migrants from former communist bloc countries coming into Western Europe in search of a better life. Migrants from the Middle East and Africa are also flooding there too. Migrants have been pouring across the borders of Iraq into Iran and Syria. Migrants from one part of Asia are pouring into other parts of Asia. And, as you know, migrants from Mexico and Central America are coming across our border in record numbers.
I don’t have all the answers. But I can tell you that this Bible text challenges me. It challenges me to remember that the Holy Family was a migrant family. And it challenges me to ask this: what if God is calling all of us, all over our planet, to see migrant families as “holy” too?
Dreams Three and Four: The Holy Family was a Refugee Family
“When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20“Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.”
“But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee.”
Joseph’s third dream tells him it’s safe to travel back to Israel. Once they have returned, the fourth dream tells Joseph that it’s best not to return to Judea, but to go to Galilee instead . It would be safer there. After all, Herod has been succeeded by a king who is just as cruel and violent.
The third says, “Yes, come back to Israel,” but the fourth says, “But be careful not to come to Judah.”
Even when they returned to their country, they would not be allowed to return to their homeland. And perhaps the message of these dreams is to help us recall that many families in our world still live under social repression and fear. Many of the world’s migrant families are not formed because of simple economics — though some certainly are — but some are the result of social unrest, religious prejudice, civil wars, famines, genocides.
Whether it’s civil war in Iraq and Kenya, or genocide in Darfur, many millions of families are currently, right now, living as refugees and unable to return to their homelands.
So it challenges me to ask: what if we could see refugee families as “holy” too?
The Christmas message is the message of God incarnate in our world. It’s about God coming to earth in human form. It’s a message that God does not leave this world alone, and that this world is not godless and soul-less, as it sometimes may feel. In fact, the good news of great joy is that the Messiah is born IN to the world. God loved the world enough to live IN the world … to “dwell among us.”
At the same time, we live with the tension that our world’s in a hell of a mess. Wars. Famines. Social injustice. Evil in the name of religion itself. The juxtaposition of the Christmas message of hope and the broken, hell-ish, modern world, is a deep chasm to bridge. But if we are to believe the Christmas message at all, then surely it must mean God come to earth, even in the midst of the worst of the world’s conditions.
So, maybe it’s truer than we could imagine to suggest that “Holy Families” of today are:
— Families of choice
— Migrant families
— Refugee families
And just maybe our calling is to do what we can to welcome these families into our world –and not see them a nuisance on TV we wish would just go away– but the heart of God’s presence among us.
The Bible challenges us to see the original family in this story as “holy.” But Mary and Joseph were probably not more than teenagers. They probably didn’t have what we would consider a “high school” education. They had few financial resources. And yet, our Christmas story tells of a child born into a humble stable, to humble parents.
The message not to be missed is that God comes into every part of this world. God is a God for all people. God is a God who loves all the world.
One of my favorite modern Christmas hymns is called “Star Child.” The chorus is a very simple restatement of the Christmas Hope that we might one day see all the world’s children as holy and blessed…that we might world for a world where every kind of family is seen as “holy.”
The chorus says:
“This year, this year, let the day arrive when Christmas comes for everyone…
Let it be so.