One of my favorite Christmas movies is National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. I think the reason I like it so much is that it is a helpful balance to the saccharine sweet of It’s a Wonderful Life or Dickens. I love those, too, of course, but sometimes Clark Griswold is just more like real life!
Christmas vacation is one of the best Christmas movies in the way it realistically portrays family. In the movie, of course, Clark is stuck trying to navigate the craziness of his family. His in-laws think he can’t do anything right. His aunt can’t hear and his uncle burns down the tree with his cigar. Cousin Eddie shows up in his RV unannounced and expects Clark to wait on him hand and foot. This perfect, idyllic Christmas that Clark has in mind is picked apart, a piece at a time, and his dysfunctional family does the picking.
And while the movie is, of course, a little over the top, it actually does a pretty good job explaining one of our biggest stressors at Christmas, or any of the holidays: our family! Psychologists report that one of the biggest causes of holiday stress is not financial woes, or the lack of sunlight, but family. Think about how many family-based stressors are in play in the holidays?
Those who wish they were married but aren’t or wish they had children but don’t.
Those who have lost a family member and grieve being alone at the holidays.
Or those who have more family than they want…those who have a hard time getting along with their families or dread the uncomfortable conversations around the dinner table.
For a pretty big percentage of us at the holidays, family makes Christmas hard!
And these same psychologists tell us that there is a scientific reason for this stress. A couple actually.
One reason why families stress us out is that our way of being with family is deeply ingrained. The family patterns and practices that we have grown past and given up all come back and we act like we used to. Sibling rivalries, unhealthy relationships between parents and children. All of that stuff that we haven’t completely dealt with in our families comes back in a big way at the holidays. Pamela Regan, a psychology professor at California State University, says “I’ve seen grown siblings start to act like eight-year olds.”
The second reason is what I would call the Clark Griswold Effect. We think that the holidays have to be perfect. We have to have the perfect food and the perfect gift and the family that loves each other perfectly all the time. Just like Clark expected in the movie. All this expectation and pressure builds up and it drives folks more than a little crazy. Regan suggests that the holidays remind us of what we don’t have, and that contrast is painful. The family member who is gone this year. Or the Lexus that isn’t out in the driveway with a bow on it! How many of you didn’t get one of those last year? Like Clark, we want perfect. But life isn’t perfect, and neither are the holidays.
So there is actually scientific reason why we tend to dread getting together with family at the holidays.
And I would add, Biblical reason, too!
We are now to the third week in our series on Four Storytellers, and finally we have a baby Jesus! Matthew’s Gospel finally starts to feel a little more traditional with some of the familiar players: Mary and Joseph and the Magi are all in Matthew. This Gospel is much different than either Mark or John, isn’t it?
And I was struck in this re-reading about how much of the story happens in the context of family. There are basically 5 passages that make up the Christmas story in Matthew, and each of them is connected to family in one way or another. But, if you read these passages through the lens of family, you will see that there are some painful, and even dysfunctional things going on here!
- The first is the passage I read this morning. Not exactly a rosy picture of a healthy families. Poor communication between Mary and Joseph. Mistrust between each other. Joseph is not sure what to do with Mary’s pregnancy and plans to divorce her. Did Joseph’s decision to listen to his dream angel come without any self-doubt, or did he ever wonder if he was making a huge mistake?
- The second passage is the Magi. Again, it looks on the surface as a beautiful family story, with the baby or infant Jesus bouncing on his mother’s knee as the Magi enter. But it comes with a dark side: the Magi come under the shadow of Herod, a self-conscious and weak leader that fears that the baby will take the place of him or his own family, thus his deceit and threats.
- Third is the flight to Egypt. Again, look at it through the eyes of family. Did Joseph and Mary struggle over the decision to flee their country and their support system…could you imagine having a brand new baby and then immediately leaving for a new land with no support or community?
- Fourth is perhaps the most painful story – the murder of the innocents. Again, Herod’s fear drives him to violence, and now family is the place of grief, as children are murdered in the search to kill Jesus.
- And finally, the return back to Israel. But now, the family cannot return to Bethlehem, as there would likely be resentment of Mary and Joseph that their child lived while so many other children were killed by Herod, or even resentment that in part Mary and Joseph’s child was the reason that their children did not?
Awkward relationships. Unclear motivations. Poor communication. Mistrust. There are some really painful family moments in here. It seems pretty far from Bedford Falls, doesn’t it?
So, here we have in Matthew a very different kind of Gospel and a very different kind of Christmas story. If Mark is a bare-bones pragmatist and John is a poet/theologian, Matthew is a marriage and family therapist!
But maybe that’s the point. Maybe part of what Matthew is saying is that even in the uncomfortable conversations, in the miscommunication, in the loss and the grief, and even in the violence that far too often takes place in the context of our families, God is with us. God chose to do all of this in the context of family, and even if family isn’t what we would like it to be, or the rosy picture that Hollywood or Hallmark has for us of what family is “supposed” to be, God is Emmanuel: “God with us.”
If we weren’t sure that that was Matthew’s message, then we would only need to look back a few verses. Before the official Christmas story begins, Matthew’s prologue is a long genealogy of Jesus’ family tree. And it is, if we take an honest look, a roll call of family dysfunction. Look at the craziness that Jesus is related to:
- Abraham told the king that his wife was his sister in order to hand her over and curry favor with him.
- Jacob lied to his father and cheated his brother.
- Tamar had two children by her father in law, and deceived him to do it.
- Rahab was a prostitute in the Promised Land.
- Ruth whose husband died and was forced to throw herself at the feet of Boaz.
- Bathsheba who was impregnated by the king who in turn had her husband killed.
- Menessah, who was best known for genocide, including child sacrifice.
- Mary and Joseph, who were not a traditional family by any stretch of the imagination.
This is all Jesus’ family tree! It’s almost as if God chooses to work in the midst of our dysfunction, not just once we get it all fixed and tied up a with a bow. Matthew’s Christmas story is definitely rated PG-13, if not R or worse. But his point seems to be that regardless of our dysfunction, God is with us, God is working through us. That we don’t have to have perfect families, because we have a perfect God.
Of course, the good news in all of this is that if God chose to come in the middle of this awkward and painful context of family, then maybe our families aren’t as irredeemable as we think they are!
- Maybe even when that uncle insists on saying insensitive comments about your cousin’s boyfriend…God is with us.
- Maybe when that nephew who shows up with a different girlfriend and a new child every Christmas…God is with us.
- Maybe when your parents start asking uncomfortable questions about your ovulation schedule and less than subtly suggesting, “you know, you’re not getting any younger”…God is with us.
- Maybe when the children throw a fit at the table and your brother refuses to discipline them the way that you think he should…or across the table, if your sister who doesn’t have any kids starts to complain about the way that you discipline yours…God is with us.
- Maybe when we are lonely or depressed without – or because of – our family this season…God is with us.
Of course God is with us, even when we think that our families are too crazy, unhealthy, or unbalanced. Because that’s exactly how God chose to show up. From day one. Through the Incarnation of Christ. And even today.
Perhaps you know of the story by Barbara Robinson: The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. It tells the story of the Herdman children, six siblings who are known as the worst behaved, most problematic kids in the whole town. According to the opening line, all of them even smoke cigars…the girls, too!
One Sunday, these kids show up to church…because they heard there were snacks. And, of course, before long, they all want to be in the Christmas Pageant. As you can guess, it turns into a mess from the beginning, and by the night of the pageant, the whole town shows up, just to see what the Herdmans are going to do!
But by the end of the night, the worst Christmas pageant ever has become the best. The boys dressed up as wise men have brought a Christmas ham instead of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Imogene Herdman, who plays Mary, has been brought to tears as she understands what the young woman must have felt. And the young sister playing the angel hasn’t stopped going around and shouting, “HEY, unto you a child is born!” And the church and the town realized that they have seen perhaps the best way to experience the story…Herdmans and all.
May our Christmas, even with our “Herdmans,” be a reminder that God is with us…always.