The Christmas Tree at the Mathis household is especially pretty this year. Of course, we say this most every Christmas so our judgment may be a bit suspect. While not on the scale of, say, the tree in the dining room of the Biltmore House, our family does take pride in the tree that graces our living room.
It has taken us some time, but I think we’ve finally figured out how to decorate a tree. Rebecca freely accepts the task of putting the lights on the tree. I’m especially grateful for her willingness on this score because the work is tedious and tiresome. Actually, I loathe the task. I get tired just watching Rebecca work. Besides, she’s got an eye for light placement (though we’ve had a row or two over the years about whether we should use either white or colored lights. Relax, people. I’ve come around to her wisdom of using only white lights).
My job—besides the outside prep and tree-stand-placement fun—is to put the ornaments on the tree. Admit it, y’all. Ornament placement is an art. One would certainly not allow children to be unsupervised at this stage of Christmas decorating. With the exception of the heinous snowman which was made from a toilet paper tube in 1984 that must always find a home on our tree (sigh), our Christmas Tree is decked with a fun mix of charming, local and yet sublime ornamentation.
One of my favorite tree ornaments is a 6-inch porcelain figurine of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. Each individual has been woven into one singular unit. The ornament is without detail or particular feature. Yet, it feels simple and elegant. It shimmers and reflects the lights Rebecca put on the tree. It finds its home in the front, near the top, of the tree.
And it reminds me of this fact: Christmas is about family.
Whether depicted in a nativity scene, on a Christmas card, or meme on social media, you almost never see the Christ-child appearing by himself. And for good reason. The Bible teaches us that Jesus was born to Mary and Joseph, and that they were visited by shepherds and later magi from the East. God’s arrival in the world is accompanied by community. Sure, it’s a mishmash of people—a virgin teenager, the lowly vagrant-like shepherds, the wise men—but the scene works! Even our own nativity scene at church highlights the communal aspect of numerous individuals, and their perspectives, motives, hopes, and fears.
In the Christmas story, Jesus never appears in isolation. When God becomes Emmanuel—which means ‘God with Us’—He chooses to dwell in the world. The glory and miracle of Christmas isn’t simply about a baby. It’s about the Holy Family. It’s about the love, support, and encouragement that we find in community. We cannot tell the story of God’s love in Jesus Christ without first talking about his mother, Mary, and his surrogate father, Joseph.
So, yes. I like that my favorite Christmas ornament has the Christ Child connected to his parents. I am fond of how their intimacy is on display. I love how God’s story is central to the family’s identity.
It’s not all unicorns and daffodils, though, is it? Perhaps that’s why I’m drawn to the imagery of the Holy Family at Christmas. Here’s the truth: Family is hard work. Although our family photos on the wall—like the image of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus—look idyllic, they are not. Our smiles in our family photos belie the fact that we are exhausted, crestfallen, distracted or even angry. Our perfect placement by the photographer masks the fact that our family dynamics are complicated by numerous variables and circumstances that are far beyond our control. Family is hard work. And even though we grow apart, move away, and begin our own families, we snap back to the dynamics that were present in those family photos of old during times of hardship or tragedy.
The same was true for the Holy Family. Lest we forget, Jesus was born into a family that was emerging from scandal. The question surrounding the identity of Jesus’s father would follow him deep into adulthood (“Isn’t this Mary’s son?”). The new family would become refugees of their native land when it became clear that their new son represented a political threat to the power holders at the time. We see in scripture a portrait of a family that is wrestling with the reality that one of their own is becoming a Messiah. There is maternal cajoling (turn this water into wine), sibling rivalry, an intervention, and even the rejection of family values and loyalties.
And you think your family is difficult?
But this is how God chooses to come into the world—through a family. In fact, without a family, one could argue, the Messiah would never have made it. For you see, we need nurturing. We need the safety and security of sanctuary. We need bold, faithful fathers and we need mothers who trust God’s greater work in the world. We need extended families and all their challenges because they teach us about the good, but hard, work of community.
So, at Christmas it’s vital that we give thanks for the gift of one another, as well; particularly our families of origin. To do this properly, of course, we need to practice the Kingdom values of mercy, forgiveness, unconditional love, and service to our family members.
Whether we like it or not, we are all like my favorite Christmas ornament. That is, we are connected and woven together. The Good News of Jesus’s birth is that this doesn’t have to be bad news. Indeed, being connected to one another might just be the closest we ever get to feeling God’s presence in this world.
And that, brothers and sisters, is worth displaying on the front of our Christmas trees.