This morning, I allowed myself a few moments before our Christmas Tree and the village and crèche that rest beneath it. All of my life, I have enjoyed similar scenes in my parents’ home and the homes of numerous family members. Though I brought this tradition into our home when I married, my husband and our sons took over this task early on. While our boys-turned-men have moved on to their own homes and their own Christmas Trees, their dad continues as village planner in this house. As for me, I unpack the boxes and step back as my dear husband fashions the current year’s scene.
As I studied my husband’s handiwork this Christmas 2013, it occurred to me that the peace and joy we associate with the first Christmas likely graced Mary and Joseph far differently than the scene before me suggested. Mary and Joseph did not choose Bethlehem to be the birthplace of their son. Caesar Augustus required all citizens to return to their cities of origin to register for a census. Since Joseph’s roots lay in Bethlehem, he and his wife were compelled to travel there. When the couple arrived, Bethlehem teemed with people who had made the same journey with the same purpose. When Joseph failed to find a place to stay, an innkeeper led him and Mary to his livestock shelter. They would find a bit of privacy there as Mary’s labor had begun. Though a warm room and a clean bed escaped them, Mary and Joseph were likely grateful for what they had been given as they prepared to welcome Jesus into their lives. Not long afterward, something in the night sky alerted shepherds to a baby’s cry in the night. It was to these that Mary and Joseph first introduced their child. Though many considered themselves more worthy than these outcasts to greet the Messiah, God chose shepherds to welcome Jesus to his life among us.
The difficult circumstances which surrounded Jesus’ birth were only a taste of the hardships to come for the Holy Family. The Magi traveled a great distance to follow the star which heralded this new king. Though Mary and Joseph certainly thanked God for this amazing visit, they likely followed their prayer of thanks with a prayer for counsel. How would they raise this child? Not long after the Magi’s departure, an angel’s warning came in answer to their prayer. God’s messenger warned Joseph of King Herod’s wrath and instructed him to flee to Egypt with his family. There they remained until Herod’s death. Though Joseph intended to return to their home, a second angel warned of another tyrant which is the reason Joseph finally settled his family in Nazareth.
As I stared at the little Bethlehem that rests under our Christmas Tree, I shuddered as reality’s chill took hold of me. Though my loved ones shared much joy before this tree, life in the world continues with its imperfections and hardship. It seems to me that this is the message of this Feast of the Holy Family. Joseph and Mary nurtured God’s beloved Son. Still, their holy family was not spared the difficulties that punctuate life on this earth. While God showered them with loving care every day of their lives, God also allowed them the freedom to make the best of their lot as only they could. The two millenia since bear witness to the fruits of Joseph’s and Mary’s efforts. Jesus’ message would never have touched our hearts if Mary and Joseph had not done their part.
You know, God fashioned your circumstances and mine with even more loving care than my husband expended as he fashioned the little village under our family Christmas Tree. God gave Mary and Joseph all that they needed to nurture Jesus and one another, whatever the circumstances, and God does the same for you and me. Jesus, Mary and Joseph are not the only holy family whom we celebrate today. Indeed, God’s presence among us makes each of our families holy as well.
By this reading, you have experienced the best and worst of Christmas 2013, just as Mary and Joseph experienced the best and worst of the First Christmas. Like them, we turn to God in both cases -to offer our gratitude and to seek God’s counsel. Like them, we simply do our part as only we can.
©2013 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved