First Sunday in Christmas: Feast of the Holy Family

Marc Chagall (1909)
“Holy Family” by Marc Chagall (1909)

“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do.”—Colossians 3:12-13

In my family, the “Feast of the Holy Family” was always a chance to snicker in church—specifically during the reading from Colossians 3: 18-21. Definitions of family have changed radically over time. Most “families” wouldn’t recognize each other as such from one century to the next. The model of the “nuclear” family was a construct of economic forces that arose after the Industrial Revolution. The model of the “blended” family is more common now than it was 50 years ago. But what about the Jesus Family? What sort of family was modeled by the disciples of that first-century itinerant rabbi? What model of family did Paul conceive of when the church was young?

Not long ago I attended an impromptu prayer service on the sidewalk in my neighborhood. A young man, Erlin, had been killed there in a gang altercation two nights earlier. The word went through the neighborhood that his mother wanted to pray. Twenty people were crowded around a scrawny maple tree. Someone had taped Erlin’s picture to the trunk. His elementary-school-age nieces and nephews held votive candles purchased at the dollar store.

Erlin’s buddies from his “crew” were there too. They lined up behind his mother, forming a kind of honor guard. They wore dark glasses. A few had guns shoved down the front of their nylon running pants. Some, out of respect for his mother, had put their weapons—thick chains and baseball bats with nails hammered into the ends—behind the dumpster a few yards away.

Finally, his mother asked to speak. In her soft Jamaican accent, she said how much she loved her son. She said he struggled to do the right thing, and that watching him struggle had broken her heart. Then she turned to his friends—his fellow gang members—and said the most amazing thing. “He was my son,” she said. “You were his brothers. Now you are my sons and I am your mother. Now we are family. This is the way it is.” She expected his “brothers” to be at her table for jerk chicken and potatoes any time they were hungry. She expected them to help her fix things around the apartment. They must come to her with their problems, and she would pray for each of them every day.

In the gathering dark, I heard the line from John’s gospel echo and twist. “When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing by, he said, ‘Woman, behold your son!’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’ And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.”

“Truly he taught us to love one another; his law is love and his gospel is peace.”—O Holy Night

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