I recently cleaned off the front of our refrigerator where we keep the yearly family portraits that come in Christmas cards. You know: The school portraits from nieces and nephews, the family pictures of cherished friends as they posed at their favorite vacation spot and the printed group portraits that have been made into official Christmas greetings with the family in coordinated attire. The magnets were lifted and the smiling faces removed in order to make way for the latest editions that began arriving just after Thanksgiving.
It is lovely to see how the kids have grown, where these loved ones have experienced joy during their sabbath vacations and just how much the adults look the same from year to year — never mind the subtle changes in hair color, the expansion or retraction of waistlines or the look of the stresses of adult life! The pictures help to mark the passage of another year. They help to document a part of the family story. And by placing them predominantly in our home, like on the refrigerator, we are connecting our life stories with theirs.
I don’t remember just how long ago we began an exercise at church, but during a December program that included parents and their children in the fifth and sixth grades, we hauled out all of the accumulated articles of clothing that had been used during Christmas pageants in years past. We set the costumes next to a polaroid camera (pre-smartphones) in front of the large manger in the chancel. We then had each family member choose their character from the Christmas narratives and after they were dressed for the part, they posed for a slightly different family portrait. Sometimes the pictures contained shepherds and Mary. In other groupings, there were angels and Joseph cradling the baby. The point was that it didn’t matter if all of the characters were present. What mattered was that whoever showed up, they were family. And each family was “holy”.
It can be an enlightening discipline to identify with characters in the biblical text. This is particularly true when a story is overly familiar, like the Christmas story. We know the plot. We know the setting. We know the characters. We can imagine how they dressed. We can even quote some of their lines by heart, if not because of going to Sunday School, then thanks to A Charlie Brown Christmas. But would we hear the story differently if we chose one of the characters ahead of time and imaged their perspective in this season?
And what about those lesser known characters, the ones who considered themselves to be a part of the “holy” family, but who are not even mentioned in the drama as told by Matthew and Luke?
What if you could dress up and appear in the unfolding Christmas story as Mary’s niece or as Josephs’ great-uncle? Where would you place yourself in the extended family portrait? Next to cousin Elizabeth and her speechless spouse, Zechariah? We remember how the story connects with the likes of Anna and Simeon, members of the larger community who were affected significantly by the feeling of closeness to the new baby. The point is it that everyone counted — was counted, literally by the Romans!
But more importantly, they counted figuratively. From one generation to the next. Younger and older. Blood relatives and families of choice. We all yearn to belong to a family in which we are blessed with laughter and support, companionship and acceptance, where we can be known with all of our shortcomings and where we can become more fully who we are called to be.
We are Family
In this season of wonder and incarnation, when we rejoice and acknowledge God’s presence in the world, may we claim our place amongst our sojourners on this path of life. May we celebrate the passing of years, not just until graduation, but each year as we find new ways to widen our horizons, experience curiosity and continue to grow. And may we honor and celebrate those who are a part of our family, who claim us as we are — whether or not we share any strands of DNA.
So grab the costume of your choosing, gather around the manger and experience the wonder of God’s light as it shines into this dark world. And be sure to reach out and welcome others into the sacred narrative because the piece of the story that they carry might just be the key to your understanding of joy today as we connect our lives with God’s incarnation of love!