The Nativity celebrates something much more beautiful and complex than the Child Jesus. Like the rim of light surrounding the sun in eclipse, the brilliant light that is the Child Jesus is surrounded, as it were, by a beautiful penumbra, which is his family, and, to be sure, the whole people Israel.
“It takes a village,” as the saying goes, to welcome and nurture a child, even a divine one! As Christ came “in the fullness of time,” we mustn’t overlook the fullness of human freedom, openness, and prayerful receptivity in Jesus’s forebears that prepared (and still prepares) the way for Love’s dawning in the stream of time.
First among the cooperators in this divine-human drama were the Jewish people — in our time, just as in Jesus’s, a people under attack — and from their pilgrimage in history, in a humble region called Galilee, came Mary and Joseph. The capacity of these two, among “the least” of their age, to respond to the Spirit’s call, whether in the form of an angel or a troubling dream, had long been prepared in Mary and Joseph by their ancestors in faith. So too was Jesus formed in expectant waiting and prayerfulness as “he grew in wisdom and in favor before God and human beings.” Theirs were not the first hearts, nor the last, to be pierced by the joys and sorrows of journeying with God through difficult and dangerous times.
Many families today, not excluding my own, feel squeezed from all sides by enormous pressures. Like a kettle slowly simmering to boil, every family needs a relief valve, or better, an inner wellspring of strength to cool the rising temperatures from within. That wellspring, as St. Paul reminds us, is love, which flows for Christians from the encounter with God’s Love in Jesus, and God’s indwelling Spirit of peace, whose presence dwells imperceptibly in all things. The Hebrew people called Her the Shekinah, or Ruah – the divine Spirit who accompanies Her people in their joys and sufferings, and above all, through their exile in hostile surroundings.
For Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, I can imagine they felt Her presence in the rhythms of Jewish worship, in mealtimes together around the table, in the familiarity of the scriptures, in the dignity of everyday work during Jesus’s “hidden years” in Nazareth. Like them, we can draw daily courage from the simplest acts of presence and love—as St. Paul has it, from wellsprings of “kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with and forgiving one another” (Col 3:12-13), which keep the rising temperatures at bay. The greatest difficulty, for me, is trust, especially when the challenges of parenting, or simply of living hopefully in these foreboding times, come dangerously close to boiling point.
As I step back from the immediacy of my own family and consider the desperate situation of families at our southern border — separated, vulnerable, waiting, threatened, languishing — I can hardly imagine what hidden wellspring gives strength to those mothers and fathers who have endured such unimaginable hardships. In every age, the Holy Child in every human being – in parents no less than children! – must be protected from those many forces that ever threaten to snuff out the light. (Remember the murderous Herod, the massacre of the innocents, and the night-time flight to Egypt? Where do we as a nation today figure in that terror-soaked story?)
To recognize that “it takes a village to raise a child” is at once to recognize that it takes abiding faith and courage to protect the divine Child, the light of God’s goodness, in each of us — in every person, without exception. For me, the Holy Family is our quiet witness to such a faith: their openness to the Spirit who gives fresh possibility and strength amid the swirling storms of life. In that struggle, our ancestors in faith reassure us, we are never left to fend alone.
Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, Elizabeth and Zechariah, Abraham and Sarah, be with my family and with all families this day, and throughout the New Year. Be with us in our exile, and in our flights to Egypt. Sustain us in the rhythms of our daily labors in Nazareth, strengthening the relationships and communities of which we are a part. May your example awaken fresh creativity and courage in us, new possibilities from within the spark of our tender, interwoven freedom.
Spirit of God, gentle Creator and holy One, nurture and protect the Holy Child in each of us, especially in the parents and children waiting desperately for signs of hope on both sides of our southern border. Remind us — as You did the shepherds and Magi — that there are always new gifts to be given.
Always new gifts to be given, through love, in the fullness of time.