I can still picture the perfect Christmas in my head. My cousins were all there, along with my aunts, uncles, and grandparents. The kids’ table was the coveted spot for dinner – even some the adults offered to make the “sacrifice” of not sitting at the adult table in order to join the kids. After a dinner with the lamb and asparagus casserole my grandfather always cooked, the cousins challenged the aunts and uncles to a football game in the yard. I scored a touchdown, which if you know me, was a minor miracle. It was a perfectly beautiful, chilly day, and I remember being happy.
Of course, I was too young to know what was actually happening. Marriages were hanging on by a string, and only one would survive. Anxiety was hidden beneath the surface at the kids’ table as one family member barked at us for various offenses. At least one family member was struggling with her sexuality. Cousins would later be caught in the middle of nasty divorces, meaning I would not see them for several years. Jobs would be lost, and identity would be questioned in the midst of unemployment. American politics would infect family politics. Even my own immediate family was heading for all sorts of tumult.
For a long time, I mourned the loss of that perfect Christmas. I saw other families seeming to hold their Christmases together without effort. I watched commercials that reminded me more of how things used to be rather than how they were. I would receive annual Christmas cards and letters from seemingly perfect friends that made me feel like I did not measure up. Even the pictures of the Holy Family seemed to capture a peace and contentment that I would never have.
But slowly, over the years, the old Biblical narrative seemed to unravel. Knowing how hard marriage is, I could finally imagine how tense things must have been between Joseph and Mary. Knowing how hard pregnancy is, I could finally imagine how miserable Mary must have been by the time they arrived in Bethlehem. Knowing how brutal the Roman rulers were, I could imagine how dehumanizing going back to your hometown to be enrolled in the census must have been. Knowing that not one family member, friend, or business would take in the Holy Family, leaving them in the most humiliating of situations, I could imagine how panicked and lonely the first-time mom, Mary, must have felt, even in her exhaustion. Knowing how filthy shepherds usually were, and how Mary and Joseph just wanted a little peace, I could imagine how overwhelmed the Holy Family felt. Though we like nativity sets, cards, and pageants that depict the Holy Family’s experience as heavenly perfection, the scripture tells a different story.
One of my favorite paintings of Mary is a painting that depicts her, just after birth, splayed, half-dressed, on a rustic bed, with women hovering in the dark background, tending to baby Jesus.[i] There’s something very real and raw about that painting – the animals and baby are all there, but none of it seems perfect. That’s what I love about this service too. We too are tired, overwhelmed, and feeling vulnerable. We too are lost without our loved ones this year. We too are terrified of the ambiguity of life, and the sense that we are not in control. But unlike everywhere else we live and work, this gathering tonight says we do not have to hide; we do not have to stuff our vulnerabilities and weaknesses in a box; we do not need to try to find perfection.
Tonight we are simply invited to be real, vulnerable, and honest about the imperfection of our lives, of ourselves, and of this time of year. And though some artists might want you to believe that the Holy Family puts forth some sort of perfection standard, if anything, the Holy Family is right there with us. Sitting among smelly animals and shepherds, settling into itchy hay and drafty stables, and wrapping their child in scraps of simple cloths, the Holy Family invites us into an imperfect Christmas. Only when we enter fully enter into the imperfection of our Christmases are we able to allow the perfection of Christ to light a small flame of hope in our hearts. May that light be kindled or stoked tonight, and may that light of hope grow ever strong in the days, weeks, and years to come.
[i] Paul Gauguin, “Te Tamari No Atua (Nativity), 1896,” as found at http://www.jesus-story.net/painting_birth_christ.htm on December 20, 2016.