Cards portray it. Adverts encourage it. Tradition dictates it. Christmas is seen as a family time.
The expectation is often of multigenerational bliss: children, parents, grandparents, and more, all gathered around a highly decorated table straining under the weight of festive food. We are told that everyone should be smiling, jolly jumpers be worn – even the family dog should be wagging contentedly as morsels of food come his way. It’s a picture of family harmony. Joy.
For some that is the reality, and praise God for those homes where love abounds and conversation is rich. For others, though, nothing could be further from the truth. Christmas focuses the mind on who is not present – it is a time of mourning those who have been torn away by bereavement or betrayal. The festive season can bring into sharp relief the unfulfilled longings for family – the individual yearning for a spouse, the couple desperate for the baby who has never arrived. For still others, Christmas is the context for long-held strife to come to the fore. Not so much silent night as screaming with might or stewing with lips tight. There are many for whom the stereotypical Christmas family gathering is nothing but a fantasy. And the thought of the bank holidays to come fills us with dread.
Lamenting the family gathering
Those who feel its lack may need space to lament their family wounds this Christmas time. There are, of course, moments to just get on with the Christmas plans we have, but pretending everything is OK when families are fractured or fraught does nothing but paper over the cracks.
Only God can truly know the depths of pain, the desire to cry, the years of heartbreak that we are carrying. Only he can see the full extent of our scars. And his presence and care speak deeply into our suffering. The Lord’s comfort is a blessing that no other gift can bring. He is the one who loves and binds up the broken-hearted. He is the one who has the power to carry us when our strength is gone. We can turn to him, safe in the knowledge that he is our rock and refuge – our ever-present help in times of trouble. And he invites us to leave our burdens with him.
Embracing the family gathering
But the Lord does more than offer us comfort this Christmas when our family life has gone astray. At its core, Christmas is so much more than biological family gathered in celebration. In the incarnation God offers us a new family – one that will stand the test of time. As Galatians reminds us:
“…when the time had fully come, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive our adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5).
Jesus’s coming is an invitation to gather into the family of God. His birth brings the possibility of our rebirth – to join him in the biggest and best family there is. No longer individuals labouring under the weight of sin and law but siblings welcomed into freedom and hope. He came to earth to offer us relationship – to bring us to him.
Living the family gathering
Such adoption changes everything.
From the very moment we come into his family, we are uniquely privileged. Indwelt by the Spirit, we are safe for eternity and gifted to serve him in fulfilling ways. Under the Lordship of Christ, we have a Shepherd King who guides, provides and offers rest. In the arms of the Father, we have grace, forgiveness – a tender welcome back to our true home, the arms of the living God.
The guilt of all we have done has been taken away, leaving us clean. The power of what has been done to us has been broken, leaving us free. The futility of life has been washed away and replaced with the call to holiness, the call to community, the call to mission. There is hope in abundance.
And that changes Christmas 2023.
Whether we are surrounded by a human family who loves us or part of one that is very far from what it should be, we have immeasurable blessing this festive time. Not necessarily ease. Sometimes deep distress. But hope and help in profound ways. And that means we are able, in God’s strength, to live a beautiful Christmas.
We can lift our eyes to see the glory of the Lord. We can remember his birth with awe and thanksgiving. As the shepherds went to worship, so we too can open our mouths in praise and begin to grasp more fully the overwhelming message of love and restoration that his coming brings.
We can rejoice with those who are rejoicing. We can mourn with those who mourn. We can forgive those who have truly repented. Or at least begin to walk those paths. We can speak hope to the downcast. We can walk alongside those who are finding life hard. We can serve. We can spur on. We can seek justice and help for those who are oppressed. We can tell others of the Lord’s immeasurable goodness to those he came to save. Not because our Christmas is picture postcard perfect but because we are being held by our Father, our King. And his everlasting arms will not fail.
So, this season, whether your human family is a delight or more akin to a disaster – revel in who you have been adopted to be. The old has gone – the new has come. And with the angels we can sing:
Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace to men
on whom His favour rests!