Holy and Not So Holy Families

At last the holidays are over.  I can step away from entertaining and get back to reading, writing, and prayer.

But Christmas is a family holiday, which the Feast of the Holy Family naturally follows—in more ways than one.

On the one hand, Christmas is about Jesus being born into a holy family.  On the other hand, we celebrate that feast in our own, less than holy families. 

I count myself blessed that, for all my family’s challenges, I look forward to being with my family at Christmas.  But I notice, every year more, how family struggles bring misery to many people’s Christmases.

***

We idealize Christmas as a magical time, families gathered around the tree and around the table, giving wonderful gifts and basking in the light of tree and candles.  And that’s partly true.  But, just because it should be a magical time, it’s also a time where we notice all the ways our imperfect families spoil the magic: forgetting what others really want, from gifts or from time together; sinking into selfishness where we should be basking in love.

As my children get older, I appreciate the failures of parents.  The future Pope John Paul II, as a young priest, wrote a play called “The Radiation of Fatherhood.”  I don’t know anything about it beyond the name, but that name is a wonderful idea.  I am called to share in God’s Fatherhood, to teach my children what it means to be loved, what it means to be receptive before a benevolent and powerful parent, what it means to receive gifts in the deepest sense.  How wonderful to radiate fatherhood!

But, just because it is wonderful, how awful that we fail at it.  How awful that at Christmas I, and every other parent, am too often tired, or impatient with my children’s glee or weakness, or just want to be left alone. 

At Christmas we realize the scars that we all bear, of parents who have not always radiated the glory of God’s fatherhood. 

***

Call this the second wound. 

Our first and deepest wound is Original Sin.  Original Sin isn’t something attached to our souls—it is a lack.  Our first parents received from God a fabulous grace, that both united them to God (grace elevates) and held them in unity within themselves (grace heals), so that, among other things, their appetites and desires helped them live a happy life, instead of leading them to misery. 

Our first parents also received the ability to hand this gift on to their children, so that we too would live that unity.  Instead, they squandered it.  Their selfishness broke their union with God, broke their unity within themselves—and withheld that gift of unity from us, so that we are born to struggle instead of to peace.  Original sin is a wound deep within ourselves, a lack of grace that can only be healed by God’s grace.  That is the first wound.

But the second wound follows closely.  Just as Original Sin wounds us from within, so our parents wound us from without—and what a horror, as a parent, to realize that we pass these wounds on to our children.  I’d like to think that my children are receiving from me all the gifts that will make their lives perfect and happy—and, to be fair, our parents gave us, and we give to our children, many gifts.  But wounds, too.  We are all screwed up by our screwed-up parents, and we’re all screwing up our children.

A favorite Christian poet names both sides: “I’ll carry the songs we learned when we were kids.  I’ll carry the scars of generations gone by.”  Our personalities begin as that mash of beauty and scars, both handed down by our parents.  That is the family celebration of Christmas.

***

But at Christmas, Jesus enters into the family.  The real magic is not our perfect Christmas Eve, Christmas morning, or Christmas dinner.  The real magic is that God has not abandoned us to ourselves. 

We come to the creche not as the bearers of gifts, but as the bearers of wounds.  We come to Christmas not as those who make things magical, but as those who know we need a Savior.  The only gifts we can pass on are those we receive from him.  (How magical that the Magi came to the Savior King only because he was already at work in their hearts.  Our desire to serve him is itself his gift.)  The only songs worth singing are the ones that come from him and point us back to him.  The only songs worth singing are the ones that acknowledge our scars, and bare them to his healing balm.

The Holy Family is holy because Jesus is there.  He radiates his love into the heart of Mary; she loves him because he loved her first.  The lesson of the Holy Family is not that our families should be perfect, nor less that they automatically are.  The lesson is that grace heals and elevates, and that the only way to make our families holy is to draw near to the Savior. 

Somewhere in there is his poverty, with nothing but dirty hay for his bed, and letting himself be treated like food for beasts.  May you take with you from this Christmas that poverty, with Jesus at the center.

What wounds did you discover this Christmas?

eric.m.johnston

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *