Honouring more than our fathers and mothers

by
21 December 2017

The Christmas story subverts our ordinary understanding of family, suggests Jane Williams

J. Schwanke/Alamy

Just dropping in: the extended family around the manger

Just dropping in: the extended family around the manger

THE Christmas story remakes all kinds of concepts, and does so over and over again, each year, however fast we try to stuff them back into their “proper” shape as soon as Christmas is over.

To begin with, Christmas gently and insistently remakes the “ideal” family. Christmas cards may try to make this look like a father, a mother, and a child, but Joseph is not the father of the baby, and Mary gives birth far from home, with no mention of her own parents’ support; and there are all kinds of oddities around the edge of the idealised threesome: animals, shepherds, and astrologers, to say nothing of angels.

When Mary agrees to become the mother of the Lord, she sings out her knowledge that this will not be a private matter: in this act, God is reversing the world order, to realign it with God’s order. “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty,” Mary sings, out of the prophetic insight given to her by God’s choice of her — God’s “lowliest servant”.

She, the handmaiden, is to become the Queen of Heaven. God does not undo power by using power, or violence by using violence, or keep the promise to Abraham by dishonouring the Creator’s promise to the rest of humankind. Instead, God calls all people to be fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, of this baby, and thus remakes the whole human race into a family.

 

WHEN this particular baby, Jesus, grows up, he invites all kinds of people to travel with him, work with him, live with him; and he refuses attempts by Mary and his siblings to make him give due honour to the ordinary family unit, as though reminding Mary of the lesson she taught him, that the love of God is bigger than conventional human family love.

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In agony on the cross, Jesus invites a thief to share his eternal home, and asks his mother and his beloved disciple to become a new family, an adoptive mother and son. When we find Mary in the Upper Room at Pentecost (Acts 1.14), we realise that Mary has understood: she is now the mother of all the disciples, women and men, but she is also their sister, their daughter, a disciple, just as they are. That early Christian community develops along household lines, sharing food and resources, as you do with your family.

Our Christmas pictures of Mary, Joseph, shepherds, animals, Magi, all gathered around the baby, prove to be prescient, as Christmas begins to challenge us to dig deeper, discover more and more connections with each other, more and more ways in which we belong together, as we take care of Jesus. For Christians, the basic unit of human community is the Church, all human families and all those without human families, and everything in between, equally adopted into God’s family.

The story of creation suggests that we all have the same origin, and so its fulfilment is that our destination is also one.

 

IN REMAKING the family, the Christmas story inevitably starts to remake the parts played by women and men within it. St Matthew’s Gospel signals that God has been subtly doing that for a very long time: Mary has “forerunners”, in Tamar, Ruth, and Bathsheba, among others — women who do not fit the mould, but who are vital to the coming of the Messiah (see Matthew 1).

They prepare the way for us to encounter Mary, who responds to God’s invitation entirely on her own initiative, without consulting anyone else. She steps out into a place of mockery and exposure, not knowing whether or not Joseph will support her, simply trusting that God is true, and that this despised place will become a place of blessing.

Again, a pattern begins to emerge. Jesus accepts a degrading death, and makes it a place where death is destroyed, where hope and life spring into being, as though Jesus’s response of trust — even when the way ahead is so unclear — is learned in his mother’s womb. The Son of God is both the giver and the receiver of this gift.

In St Luke’s Gospel, Elizabeth is the first human person to give Mary the assurance she must long for. “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord,” Elizabeth says, obliquely comparing Mary’s trust with her own husband’s lack of it. Zechariah certainly did not believe God, and could not speak again until he could speak an acknowledgement of his mistake. But Elizabeth’s praise of Mary is more than just a marital dig: it is also a celebration of a human obedience that begins to unravel the old disobedience of Eden, which will be undone completely when the tree of death becomes the tree of life, with Mary’s son as its strange fruit.

 

MARY’s trust in God, God’s trust in Mary, are seen again in Jesus’s trust of women, particularly the ones who are not occupying the usual female positions and places. Jesus accepts ministry from them, and entrusts it to them. There is the woman who anoints Jesus, accepting — as his disciples cannot — that the Messiah must die (Mark 14.3-9). What a welcome change it must have been for Jesus to be supported and not undermined in his hard decision to accept the cross.

There are the women who do not run away from the cross, but creep back at dawn to minister to Jesus’s memory, and whose courage and devotion make them the first — astonished and terrified — witnesses to the resurrection (Mark 16). The pattern goes on into the earliest Church, as Lydia throws open her home (Acts 16.11-40); as Phoebe travels with the good news (Romans 16.1-2); as Philip’s unmarried daughters prophesy (Acts 21.9).

It is not that women become more important, more faithful, than men, but that the unravelling of knotted relationships continues, until we can begin to glimpse again a human race who are bone of each other’s bone, flesh of each other’s flesh, not separated as though into different species.

 

THE list of ways in which Christmas makes us reimagine our world goes on. But the underlying coherence of it all is in the nature of God. John 1.12 says that that is the reason the Son comes into the world: to give “power to become children of God”. That is the kind of power that Jesus exercises throughout his ministry — the power of the Son of God, to call people home to the Father.

What we see at Christmas is a glimpse of the reality of all that is, which is based in the unity-in-trinity of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We can only imagine, first, the Threeness, then the Unity — not both at once — because we are fragmented beings, still seeking the power to become children of God. So, God, the Son, comes to live with us, to make himself at home with us, so that we may be at home with God.

Christmas challenges us to accept and then to live out the radical love of God, who made all things, loves all things, and has room at the table for all who will come. The Christmas crib scene is a peephole into the new world. As we kneel beside the shepherds and all the other strange and wonderful creatures whom God invites, our hearts and our imaginations begin to be enlarged. We begin to imagine that we might be at home with God, and with each other, around this simple cradle, in company with this strange family group.

 

Dr Jane Williams is Assistant Dean of St Mellitus College.

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