At this time of the year, all roads lead to the family. Christmas is family time. It is also a time for politicians to practise their pitch in defence of decent Australian families, Australian working families, and family values. We even have a political party called Family First.
Family First says that it is not an explicitly Christian party. That is just as well, because the claim made in the name of the party could hardly be less Christian. In Mark’s Gospel the greatest single obstacle to faith is to put family first. In the other Gospels, including the Christmas stories, the family is equally ambiguous.
When Jesus begins to preach, his family try to take him away because they think he has gone mad. When the crowd draws Jesus’ attention to the presence of his mother and family, he says that his real family are those who hear God’s word. Later, he says that anyone who does not hate mother, father, brothers and sisters for his sake cannot be his disciple. Strong words.
Very few ordinary family people appear in the Gospel stories. Peter must have been married because he had a mother-in-law. But like other people of interest in the Gospels, he walks with Jesus around the countryside, supported by a band of women. Neither a man’s nor a woman’s place, it seems, was in the home. The people who embody faith were often previously lacking in sexual morality, and their lives were regarded as scandalous.
In the stories of Jesus’ infancy, the person who shows the most practical interest in guaranteeing the security of decent Palestinian families is Herod. He wants to remove the threat to their security posed by a baby king. And if we seek safe family norms, Joseph and Mary, who have to deal with an unexplained pregnancy, change residence overnight on the basis of dreams, deliver their baby in the fields, and leave Palestine as asylum seekers, are dangerous role models.
Dreams are the problem. Christian faith is about large dreams that expand your view of God and of your world, and lead you to follow Jesus' path of insecurity. By the time the Gospels were written, insecurity was no longer an abstraction. It could include rejection by family, exclusion by synagogue, and persecution by state. Putting family first would stop you following the wild dream born in Jesus.
Mark, of course, was not writing for our day. We know that if you are to follow wild dreams, you need the inner security that comes from being loved, cherished and taught to value generosity. That is normally found through families. They are therefore the focus of much Christian reflection. If politicians speak much about families, they reflect the public anxiety about pressures on family life. But these pressures come from the economic individualism, endorsed by the same politicians, that is so corrosive both of families and of family values.
So Christmas is a good time to celebrate as families. But for Christians, it is also a time to think robustly about families. Happy family life is a gift and a seedbed, but the plants which it nurtures are not security and prosperity, but dreams of a surprising God and of a world that claims us. The stories of Christmas take us out of the private world of family and friends into the public - it makes shepherds, unwanted kings, angels and innkeepers part of our domestic scene. The dream is of a God whose passion is the wholeness of the world, and not only of our private lives.
Many of today’s symbols of Christmas - hospital appeals, serving meals for the homeless, finding presents for poor children - hint at this wider dimension. Christmas is not family first.
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