For the first time this year I have encountered the Hallmark Christmas universe on TV. It’s a fascinating world, fun to visit, though a little askew from the one I know and live in. I learnt that big cities are bad and small towns good, that careers are bad but working with your hands is good, that all older men are twinkly and bear a surprising resemblance to Santa Claus, and that all women just want to find the right man and settle down. There is a lot that is warm hearted and life affirming in these movies but there is also a lot that is clichéd and constricting. Especially their picture of a perfect family which is usually white and always consists of a man, a woman, a child or potential children – and ideally baked goods and a dog!
Conventional happy families, socially acceptable families, could not be further from the Christmas story that we encounter in Matthew’s gospel this morning. Here is a betrothed couple on the verge of a painful separation that would put the woman at risk of being stoned for adultery. Here is a man facing the fear that the woman he loves loves someone else and has been unfaithful. And in the middle of this potential tragedy there comes an angel, a messenger of God, telling Joseph calm down, back off, accept Mary – that this is all the work of God not of man.
Now usually this Sunday we focus on Mary – as, frankly, we should. The young woman who risked everything she had, gave everything she was, to bring God to birth in the world. The young woman who sang of the poor being exalted and the proud brought low, who saw a better world beckoning and had the courage to be part of bringing it closer. The archetype of strong, vulnerable women down the ages from St Clare to the suffragettes to Rosa Parkes to Greta Thunberg. I sort of resent Matthew for pushing her back to the patriarchal sidelines and beckoning Joseph into the limelight instead.
But, to be fair, Joseph does deserve our attention. He is not your typical Biblical patriarch but purposefully sets aside social expectations to let something new develop. He does not stand on his rights to divorce this woman who is bearing a child not his own. He risks the judgment of his peers, he risks being called weak, being seen as less than a ‘real’ man. This is his heroism – to choose the promise of God and the love in his heart over the role that society had given him.
There is a poem by the English poet and theologian Nicola Slee that captures Joseph perfectly:
I like it that you are largely silent.
You speak with your actions rather than words.
You stood by Mary and did not disgrace her.
You raised the boy as your own,
though you knew he was not.
I like those medieval paintings of you,
doddery and old, falling asleep in the corner of the stable
or looking on from a little distance.
Perhaps you are crouching over a small fire,
cooking up some mess for your young wife exhausted by labour,
or coaxing her to eat.
There is tenderness in your bearing,
a gentleness outdoing the painterly meekness of the donkey and ox.
You don’t demand our attention.
I like it that you didn’t lord it over wife and child,
that you let them be the stars.
I like the fact that you’re no paterfamilias, ruling the household.
I like the kind of man you were content to be.
This new family of Mary, Joseph and Jesus, this holy family, was not a Hallmark family. Most of our own families are not Hallmark families either. They may be a man, a woman and a child or children. They may be a man, a woman, children, step children, and exes. They may be single parents. They may be a man and a man, a woman and a woman, a couple who stand outside binary gender definitions, all with or without children. They may be a chosen family of close and supportive friends. Never let anyone tell you that your family is wrong, unchristian, unblessed by God. Remember that the upturning of social expectations around good and holy relationships began with the family of Jesus.
Not all our families are Hallmark families in another way too. Not all our families are places where we feel safe, cherished, seen and loved for who we are. Not all our families are physically safe. There will be people here today in this congregation who have faced abuse at home, verbal, sexual and physical. Know that this is never your fault. Know that this is never the will of God, never something God asks you to accept, never what God means by family.
If you are dreading spending the holidays with your family, or dreading spending the holidays alone, know that there is another family where you are seen, cherished and loved for who you are. This holy Christmas huddle of Mary, Joseph and Jesus has room for you too. It isn’t only oxes and asses and shepherds and magi who are welcomed into the stable’s light, it is you too. This is a family that has no boundaries, no limitations, that listens to the voice of the messenger of God saying conventions do not define you and being different is a blessing not a crime.
For see what it is that Christ needs to be born into our world, now as well as then. It isn’t security and certainty – Christ is not born into a Hallmark family (they weren’t white for a start!) or a Hallmark world. What Christ needs to be born is our willingness to be vulnerable, our openness to God’s creativity, our ability to love outside the boundaries of society’s expectations. Christ was born to a woman who made her own decisions, who spoke prophetic truth, who risked her respectable reputation and allowed her heart to be broken open. Christ was born to a man who chose to be gentle, who allowed himself to risk vulnerability, who nurtured others, whose heart was open to a different sort of family.
This Christmas may Christ be born into our world again. May all that is dark in our individual lives and our shared collective life be bathed with a light that brings love and healing. May love be stronger than any restrictive social convention and may every type of family know that their love is sacred. May the warmth of Hallmark but none of its biases be present in your celebrations. May this cathedral community be as open, loving and nurturing as that first holy family. And may Mary the Brave and Joseph the Loving be present to you and all those you love in this sacred, vulnerable, wonderful season!