This morning, I found window 15 outside the church building on the stairs leading up to the cathedral door. Upon opening it, a picture of a smiling family greeted me-a father, mother, and two children.
Christmas is a time for both family and church. During the holidays, the faith and family weave together in special ways in celebration and through traditions. From lighting Advent candles and decorating the house to cookie-baking and the Christmas Eve service, the yearly celebration of Jesus' birth in the human family becomes a celebration of all families.
Yet, the smiling family gave me pause. Much of the family-and-church Christmas that we experience comes from our Victorian ancestors, who interpreted the holiday through their domestic ideals of the family as a shelter from the evils of the world. Thus, Christmas became a time of nostalgia, a protective cradle of tradition, where families might forget the stresses and strains of modern life as Christian societies become more urban, commercial, and fragmented. What could be a safer, better image of the Christian faith than a tender mother, a watchful father, and a sweet infant?
Although Victorians sentimentalized the family, Christians have long ruminated on the appropriate relationship between family and church. Jesus rather shockingly dismissed family ties in favor of "anyone who does God's will is my brother or sister." New Testament writers understood the church as a "new family," a non-biological kinship through Jesus Christ. In the fourth century, St. Jerome coined the term "domestic church" to describe Christian families. During the Protestant Reformation, both Calvin and Luther thought of family as a domestic monastery.
One of my favorite books on Christian family life is Sacred Dwelling, by Roman Catholic theologian Wendy M. Wright. In it, she states:
To be the domestic church means that the family, in the uniqueness of its way-of being-in-the-world (as an intimate physical, psychological, and spiritual entity) is an authentic community of believers. It must know itself to be a community of persons tenderly fashioned by a loving creative hand, a community that tries to respond to that love by listening to the word that God speaks in Scripture, tradition, the experience of being together through the person of Jesus Christ, a community that, by hearing, becomes the word of God spoken anew.
Thus, Wright says that the Christian family exists "for the sake of the whole church and all of God's creation." The family's vocation mirrors that of Christmas itself because "the domestic church enfleshes the Word of God." Just as Jesus is the Word made flesh.
Christmas isn't only about gathering the family for the sake of cozy nostalgia, for forgetting what lies beyond the doors of home and church. Christian families are ultimately communities of spiritual formation and God's justice called to go out into the world as prophets and peacemakers. Christmas should remind us that the family is the cradle-the place where we tenderly nurture one another-for becoming the body of Christ.
Diana Butler Bass (www.dianabutlerbass.com) wanted to open her Advent calendar in community this year, and she is sharing her daily reflections with Sojourners readers online. She is the author of the forthcoming A People's History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story (March 2009).