The birth of Jesus was the beginning of family life for Mary, Joseph and their new son. Mary’s pregnancy had not been normal by anyone’s standards, starting with the conception from the Holy Spirit, announced by the angel Gabriel. The gospels do not go into detail but we can guess how difficult it must have been for Mary to explain this to her parents as well as her intended, Joseph. There will have been gossip and funny looks in the market place, I am sure, as her pregnancy became more obvious. So, not easy for a young girl. Luckily, Joseph was guided by an angel not to divorce her but to support her. Then there was the journey to Bethlehem, for Joseph to register in the census, and the lack of accommodation there that meant that the new Messiah was born in a lowly stable.
This story is familiar to us all, as each Christmas we hear the Bible passages and sing the words in our carols. And, of course, it is illustrated on the Christmas cards we send and receive, the Advent calendars, and the decorations in our homes and our towns. So familiar are these images that it is too easy for us to become hardened to them and not to look at them afresh to read what they really tell us.
The new little family – the Holy Family – was unique. Mary, Jesus’ mother, was chosen by God to carry and give birth to his son. As any mother does, she nurtured him, watched as he grew up, guided him, then stepped back as he set out on his ministry. Later, she had to watch and live through his violent death. Mary is now venerated as the model of all mothers and holds a special place in many Christians’ hearts.
Much less is known about Joseph, Jesus’ earthly foster father. He was a carpenter, so knew a useful trade and made a living to support his family. He accepted Mary’s extraordinary pregnancy, made an honest woman of her and supported her as they gave Jesus the start in life and home that he needed. We do not know if Joseph fathered further children or when he died. But we can be sure he was the right person at the time, in that place, to do the job that was needed.
The birth of Jesus was unusual, to say the least, what with the stable, the angels, the shepherds and the wise men. But let’s unpick some of this to see what it tells us. Much of it comes down to saying that Jesus was on this earth for everyone: rich and poor, high-born and lowly, educated and ignorant. His birth as a king was in a poor stable. The people who visited him first were the shepherds – poor, ignorant, the lowest of the low. But they responded without hesitation to the call by the angels to go to the stable. They had no riches to offer but they gave obedience, worship, loyalty and love. The three wise men were at the other end of the social scale, being educated and wealthy – and foreign. They brought riches – gold, frankincense and myrrh, representing kingship, worship, and death and mourning.
It is at this stage that I cannot resist repeating a humorous suggestion that if it had been three wise woman who visited Jesus, they’d have asked for directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, brought practical gifts and there would be Peace On Earth. But that’s another story.
The spirit of Christmas lives on today. For some of us, it’s one of the occasions we to go to church, to hear the familiar Bible passages and sing much-loved carols. We may go with our families, or as part of a group such as scouts or with school. It may be to one of great seasonal services such as Midnight Mass or to a carol service. Perhaps we sing carols in the streets or at Asda. It’s a time when we exchange friendly words and happy smiles with friends and strangers alike. At this time, going to church can be a haven of peace and reflection amidst the busy-ness of preparing for Christmas, with its round of decorating, shopping and preparations for hospitality. It is a time to pause and let the wonder sink in.
The spirit of Christmas can also be seen in our social round. Many of us like to spend Christmas with family or friends: it may be a time to meet up with those who live far off. It can be a time to come together, to heal differences, to remember what Christmas is really all about. Unfortunately, it can also be a time for family rows. After a month of festive parties, frantic present-buying and protracted overeating, many of us are overtired and argumentative by the time we reach the big day itself. Throw into the mix a handful of family feuds, a dash of strong alcohol and a sprinkling of overtired children, and you have all the ingredients for an explosive row. Maybe the best way to avoid this is to not rise to the bait and let things go …
This has been a difficult year, politically and nationally, and some families have been split down the middle. Best to keep politics out of it – and don’t, whatever you do, mention the ‘B*****’ word!
The other down sides of Christmas can be loneliness, or grief if we are missing someone now gone. If you know someone is on their own at Christmas, why not invite them round for all or part of the day, including fetching them if they live too far to walk. If they don’t want to share the day with you, you can reach out by delivering a card, inviting them round for coffee and a mince pie, or just stopping to chat. It can make all the difference.
It’s very difficult for people who are grieving, specially if that someone was here last Christmas. It’s always going to tough for them but you can help by gently finding out if they want to keep up their usual traditions or do things differently now. Allow them to talk, reminisce or just be quiet. Don’t avoid the subject if they want to talk but equally don’t make them talk about it if they choose not to. However well your intentions, it is probably best not to jolly everyone along, to try and get them to forget their loss and have a good time. Just be sensitive to what they want.
Having avoided some of the pitfalls, let’s value the non-material things the shepherds brought to the stable. We could try not to spend silly money on presents and food. This year, my family is doing a Secret Santa system between the adults instead of everyone buying everyone else a present. We can encourage home-made presents, try to set a budget, offer experiences or time spent with someone instead of buying material goods.
My family is also trying this year not to use unrecyclable wrapping paper, but to wrap presents in other ways, such as brown paper, tissue, reused gift bags, fabric, etc. Why not turn the TV off and play games or do a quiz? And is it always the same person who does all the cooking (could it be Mum)? Why not introduce a system where some of you help before the meal – cooking, sous-cheffing, laying the table, etc. – then get to sit down afterwards while the others clear up.
Some years the shape of the family will change and we need to adapt to changing circumstances. Since last Christmas, we now have a new baby in the family (so I am looking forward to her finding the wrapping paper and box more interesting than the presents inside); part of the family is facing economic hardship (so we are being careful how much we spend); and a marriage has fallen apart, so one in-law won’t be there and someone else will be feeling it. And this is just one family, one year. We all need to adapt to change while also being sensitive to other people’s needs. But, above all, rejoice with each other in the many, many good parts of Christmas.
Christine Clark on behalf of Churches Together in Chandler’s Ford (CTCF)