My sister once gave me a Christmas card that read “Tis the season, full of good friends, cozy fires, delicious treats, heartburn, bankruptcy, and bursts of extreme anger. Let’s get through this together.”
This weekend we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family. Most of us think of Mary, Jesus and Joseph when we think of a “Holy” family, especially during this Christmas season, as is appropriate. It is unlikely that in the wake of this week of non-stop holiday gatherings, still a bit bleary-eyed from this intense season of interaction, that “holy” would be the first word to roll off our tongues when talking about our families. The holidays can be a strenuous time, especially when we are face-to-face with our slightly more distant relatives who often hold religious or political views different than our own.
If you didn’t have at least one moment over the past month when you looked around the room at your loved ones intermingling and thought – “Yikes! What a messy, dysfunctional, quirky bunch of crazy people!” then you, my friend, are unusually blessed. The truth for most of us is that some days it is a real stretch to see the “holy” in our own family, yet our tradition insists that this is where we are to cast our gaze – to our relationships – for these are the primary place of God’s activity in the world. Our family gatherings might mimic this scene (my own little riff on a piece from Fr. Ron Rolheiser)…
The family is home for Christmas, but your spouse is in a sulk, you are fighting tiredness and anger, the little ones are hopped up on red pop and tearing around the house breaking things, your teenager is restless, doesn’t want to be there and you are afraid her eyes might stay permanently rolled back into her head if she is forced to stay. Your Uncle Joe persists in telling loud, off-color jokes despite the groans and darting glances of anguish shared on the sly between those in ear shot. His wife, Aunt Betty, embarassed, is rage knitting a sweater for her cat. Everyone else is either watching reality television or are lost in their devices and too lazy or selfish to help you prepare the dinner. Old wounds raise their ugly heads and new wounds are created, reminders of past stupidities and infidelities are peppered into the awkward conversations throughout the day, but, somehow…somehow… after all the dishes are done and the house is quiet, you know that something sacred has happened. Despite everything that has been wrong and still is wrong, we were together – and God was present in that togetherness.
Buckminster Fuller once said, “God is a verb, not a noun” ‘God is not, first of all, a formula, a dogma, a creedal statement or a set of ethical standards that demand our assent. Rather, God is the love, the glue that is in between each of us and holds us together. God is the verb, the action between us and those we love, the bond of relationship. Theologian Tomas Halik writes “Faith in God in the biblical context doesn’t mean ‘believing in the existence of God’ but rather ‘believing that God is love.’” One doesn’t become a Christian by believing that “God IS” but by believing that “God is LOVE.”
Perhaps this means that God is more domestic than monastic (Kazantzakis). That coming to know God at the dinner table is more informative than taking a bible-study class, that the practice of hospitality is more vital than the practice of right dogma, and that meeting with others to pray as a community can give us something that long hours in private meditation cannot. Even the inevitable conflicts that happen among us have the potential to be “sacramental” – moments of deep grace – occasions of God’s self-communication – if we are open to see and be transformed by them.
1 John 4:16 reads “God is love and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in them.” My guess is that this kind of love – the very “stuff of God” – is not the easy, perfect, idyllic kind of love we see in Hallmark movies and romance novels, but rather is the hearty variety of love that keeps a couple married for decades and families together through pandemics, dementia, financial troubles and other of life’s woes. After all, Rolheiser observes, “Christ was born into a family not a monastery…even He needed a family in which to grow.”
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