“He gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity,and purify unto himself a peculiar people.” Titus 2:14
Christmas is our American family holiday. Or maybe better, it’s the holiday when we all aim to cobble together, if only for a few candlelit hours, the version of family we would really like to be. Expectations are ratcheted up by Norman Rockwell paintings, sentimental holiday movies, and “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays,” and most of our families have at least one special “holiday person,” who seems to live for the thrill of whipping the whole spectacle into shape each year.
Most families have Christmas rituals, even if they aren’t otherwise all that ritualistic. There’s a certain way we open gifts. Decorations go in certain places. The main meal is always served at the same time (and we simply can’t imagine how anyone would do it another way). A few of you may have ended up here this evening for reasons that run along these same lines.
If your family has any sort of interesting ethnic heritage, it will make its appearance at some point in the next twenty-four hours. Despite the weather, this is the time for tartaned kilts and lederhosen, as well as pickled eel, pudding dripping with brandy, and those rock-hard cookies that date back either to our ancestral village or Aunt Bertha’s transcription error forty-seven years ago.
In part, this is about drawing the lines that define us as what Saint Paul calls, in our Epistle lesson, “a peculiar people.” By peculiar, he doesn’t mean odd or strange, but belonging to itself, set apart, united by things that make a group of people different from the rest of the human race. When I think back on the wonderful Christmastimes of my childhood, this is part of what made it all so special for me, this sense of being bound together with these people in something bigger than myself, something stretching back across the generations.
But this peculiarity can cut both ways, can’t it? Sometimes, we arrive at the big family gathering only to find that we don’t have so much in common any more, that we don’t really know each other when we live so far apart. Sometimes those things that make us distinct are rather darker. We all make our family lives in the shadows of past failures and unrealized hopes. We notice together the absences at the table, casualties of those past failures or the inevitable march of time. For all our best efforts, Christmas festivity usually reveals the awkwardness, folly and sin that lay right alongside those things in our family life that give us joy and hope.
The first Christmas, too, came in the context of a family gathering, one just as beautiful, complicated and messy as those which will soon unfold in our living rooms. Jesus was born hundreds of miles away from the place where he would eventually grow up, in Bethlehem, a village flooded with thousands of his relatives.
The authorities in distant Rome had ordered a tax census. They showed respect for the religious sensibilities of their Jewish subjects by ordering them to return to their ancestral villages. The Old Testament is crammed with genealogies, and the family history of the Jews was the record of God’s faithfulness to His promises. Jewish families knew the stories of their ancestors and the particular plot of the holy land assigned to them in ways we modern people forgot long ago. This trip for the census was a time to delight in their peculiarity, the particular way they belonged to God and to each other. It was a time for telling stories of the heroic ancestors, and relearning the old village songs, a time to rejoice in how the family had grown and prospered.
Jesus’ foster-father, Joseph, was a descendant of the great King David, Israel’s most successful ruler. The little village of Bethlehem was called “the city of David,” because there he had lived as a young boy, until the prophet Samuel came to mark him out as king. Centuries before, God had promised through the prophets, that He would send a second David, a King who would gather His people into one flock and restore them to unity and peace with Himself. That child, the Christ, would come from this family. As distant cousins arrived into this particular town, you should imagine them surveying one another and wondering—could he be the one?
But the Romans had combined their religious respect with a disregard for the logistical implications of the decision. The decree had created a traffic flow problem that made Friday night on 270 look like a cake-walk. Bethlehem had an illustrious past, but it was really just a shepherd’s village. The crowds were overwhelming, and there were few inns. There simply wasn’t room for everyone, and those who had little money or who arrived late would simply need to make shift where they could.
A proper bedchamber couldn’t be found for Mary, heavily pregnant and worn out from the journey. Maybe it was just an accident, or maybe the strange story had proceeded the young couple: an angel from heaven, a virgin with child of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps a miracle, perhaps a scandal. Every family has a few stories it prefers to keep under wraps.
But in this case, the irony was unmistakable. David’s most illustrious descendent came into this world in the old hometown, amid thousands of his relatives, ignored by almost all of them. Mary’s child, the long-promised King, was born in forgotten corner, hidden from the eyes of the people who mattered.
Maybe the mayor of Bethlehem eventually made it to the cradle, and the wealthy and prominent relations. But the first to be summoned there were shepherds out in the field. They might have been descendants of David as well, but they weren’t important enough to be called in for counting by the authorities. The angel, though, announced that this is good news for them, too, this Savior wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.
This is a sign, to be sure, of things to come. He is not just a Savior for the royal house, or even for God’s chosen people only, faithful through their generations. This is the child who has come to bring peace to all the earth, who comes with blessing and grace for every one whom God has made.
Around the manger, a new family is being created, what our Epistle calls God’s “peculiar people,” a people who belong exclusively to Him, adopted as His own children through His gracious love. Status makes no claim here, and blood gains no advantage. God asks only that we love Him in return, that we accept His forgiveness and live in the power of His grace, striving to do His will.
We gather this night, of course, because in one way or another, we have found our way into this “peculiar people.” We have become the brothers and sisters of Mary’s little child, children of the Father and sharers in all His blessings. Our past failures and our present weaknesses don’t count against us. No one is cast away. Even death cannot break the bond that unites us. After all, Christmas is about family. And here we are, gathered around the manger, adoring the One who makes us into the family we would really like to be.