Friday, 6 January 2012

Christmas & Family

Merry Christmas! (I know this is a bit late.  But my excuse is it is still within the 12 days of Christmas. Just.  And hence still technically Christmas. Oh, and happy Epiphany as well.)

Christmas is the great stereotypical time to spend time with your family. I am lucky that my family have always got on well together without much stress. I've always enjoyed Christmas get togethers, as much now I'm an adult as when I was little. For some people Christmas and other family occasions are not relaxing, to say the least, and that is very sad.  It is a rupturing of what family means at a time dedicated to a uniquely unique family.

Thanks to the good works of a friend whenever I think about what family means I will always think of a line from a certain Disney Film. "Ohana" in Hawaiian, "means family, and family means no-one gets left behind". Family means a commitment to one another -to care, to sacrifice, to have patience and compassion- to not give up on one another because there is a responsibility that cannot be put aside. The difference between Family and other relationships is that Family is a bond you're not allowed to give up on. Family may annoy you, they may irritate you, there certainly may be times you don't like them, but if they're family you're stuck with them. And so you do whatever you can to get along, to mend relationships and get to a situation where you can enjoy your time together because you are stuck together. This is a type of Love. Love always means commitment, of a type. A commitment you can't walk away from.  It  also means a whole lot more. It's true that you don't always even like the ones you love, sometimes you can even hate them too.

Family is a commitment. A commitment that we don't necessarily choose.  That usually means blood. The most common basis for that commitment and relation is a blood relation. The saying is "you choose your friends but your family you're stuck with". The nuclear and extended family are the historical basis of human society, the glue that holds society together, that cares for children, cares for people in their old age, and makes sure that almost everyone has someone who is obliged to care about what happens to them. It is the environment in which we are formed, and the original and most essential human social bond and organisation. It is not surprising our wider social, moral and religious ideas are widely constructed by expanding analogy to it.  Blood family bears the advantage that we share experiences and genetics, meaning we have a good chance of being quite like each other and having some sympathy for one another. Sadly it doesn't always work, but it is at least a start.

Family isn't just blood. The rituals by which we add to blood family have always been the most serious in human society. Marriage has always been considered so important because it means two people committing to becoming family to one another, and the traditional language surrounding marriage borrows overwhelmingly from our understanding of what family means. Adoption is another traditional means of grafting onto family, and the issues about the blood family, adopted family and identity of the person are so deep because family bond is crucial to our identity.

In the modern day nuclear families have become more complicated. In addition to the traditional archetype of husband, wife, children some families have single parents, unmarried parents, divorced parents, sometimes with new partners and step-children. A lady I know spends Christmas with her mother, step-dad, step-dad's ex-wife and step-dad's ex-wife's new partner and various respective children. Now these families may be as happy or unhappy as traditional family arrangements, but certainly they introduce complications that must be overcome because of their differences from the standard archetype introduces difficulty in defining who family is, and who bears the responsibility that brings.

Family does not just mean blood family, not even with all its various grafting and extensions through rituals like marriage and adoption.  There is also the family of choice. The families we make. The people we informally adopt as family throughout our lives. Often, and especially in the hectic modern world, we may find ourselves away from our blood family and unable to draw directly on the network of love, support and familiarity they offer. We may not even have a family that offers that. But people have the most wonderful capacity to build entirely new families for ourselves by adopting people as family and extending that bond of support and commitment. Unlike blood family these families carry no legal sanction or recognition, and are often not even explicitly stated, though those involved generally understand.  They are voluntary, but all the more wonderful for that, being a responsibility we choose and build for ourselves, rather than one merely given at birth. They may come about through an individual act of generosity, through some shared extreme experience, shared ideological or social association or just the enduring commitment of deep friendship. In their best moments they may be as permanent as blood family.  But even when they are more temporary they are defined by a depth of commitment and responsibility, which goes beyond whether you find a person useful in this or that particular moment. They provide support, rest,  belonging, understanding, and home. They give us people who will always care, always listen, always try to help, always be available (if at all possible), always say yes (unless there is a damn good reason to say otherwise).  And they are crucial to surviving in a difficult and complicated world cut off from the families we grow up in, and without them we will struggle, sometimes not even knowing the reason why.

These families we choose for ourselves often mirror blood family in many ways.  Someone is like a brother or sister, or even Mum or Dad to us. These families are still often based around people living together, through the way this throws people so closely together. These families of adoption are often more alike our blood family than we are prepared to admit. They are not entirely random or free. We are thrown together with certain people, with whom we may choose to build that bond or not. But generally who we come across is dictated by circumstances we do not control. On the other hand, really, all family is the family we choose.  Blood provides a strong motivation, and a social expectation, that we will treat certain people as family, but really nothing can force us to hold and to honour that commitment of compassion and respect, of Love and devotion, that defines people as family.  In the end that is a choice and a decision we make and hold to, whether consciously or not.  Our society is sadly littered with examples where people have not honoured that commitment, even to those who do share close relation, and the damage and hurt this causes can extend over entire lives.

Family being a choice we make brings me back to Christmas, where we traditionally gather as families, and hopefully remember that most special family of the Nativity. Because the Nativity very much was a Family of choice, of adoption, with more in common, in many ways, with the messy, modern arrangements of so many families today, than the neatness of the traditional archetype.  There was no blood between Mary and Joseph, only a previous commitment he did not have to honour, given the circumstances, and a duty of kindness and compassion. There was no blood between Joseph and the baby he adopted as family and raised as his own, only a choice that was thrust upon him to make that commitment for the rest of his life. There was blood between Jesus and Mary, but not the assurance the baby was shared and accepted by a human father, only the choice to accept a responsibility, and bear the distance of knowing the baby she bore was not just her son, but had a destiny and responsibility that would take him beyond her and from her as well. This was a family that was barely formed before it was forced into the life of political and religious refugees, forced to flee to a alien country, having given birth in difficult conditions far from family and home.

Nativity means a family that only existed thanks to the choice Mary and Joseph made in the strangest of circumstances, as they said Yes to the chance God had sent them, and the Love and commitment they put into making that family a reality from then on. The amazing things about the Nativity are not just the miracle of God become Man, but also that in placing himself physically in the hands of a young peasant girl and her uncertain fiance in a dirty, poor stable, God took on our aching vulnerability. Putting himself utterly in the hands of human weakness and fragility and relying on the choices they made. The fact the family of the Nativity was this uncertain, this mixed family of choice and adoption just increases the vulnerability and contingency around the coming of God into the world in flesh.  God took on not only the weakness of human flesh, and the danger of sinister human political machinations, but also the fragility of human emotions and the decision taken to build a family outside usual expectations. That God would show that trust in human nature and rely so utterly on the choices individual humans made, that is a miraculous affirmation of the human emotion & spirit, in the same way that God growing in human flesh is miraculous affirmation of the physical world we dwell in.

The most emotional illustration of this vulnerability of the Nativity in that distant stable that I have ever experienced came in an email I received on November 25th a few years ago. At the time I was a volunteer at a Night-shelter for homeless refugees in north Coventry. Refugees and asylum seekers generally can't access homeless shelters because these are funded by government welfare and refugees and asylum seekers can't access welfare. Usually without family or connections in the places they end up in, struggling with physical or emotional trauma, and without the legal right to seek work or access welfare, they often end up homeless. A lady called Penny ran a shelter in a previously abandoned North Coventry terrace house, providing a safe, dry, warm place to sleep and a free dinner and breakfast each day for homeless refugees and asylum seekers. The place ran on a shoestring and donations of food, and the support of volunteers from the local community and the University, where I got involved.  Volunteers were responsible for looking after the place over the evening, sleeping there overnight, making sure nothing went wrong, getting people up, serving breakfast and getting people out at the right time. It was pretty unpleasant throwing people out at 8 am, when it was cold and raining and you knew they had nowhere to go all day but wander round outside, but it was sadly necessary to keep the place running. The refugees were from Eritrea, Congo, Iran, Iraq, Kosovo and various countries across Africa.  They were mostly Male with the occasional woman, a woman usually from somewhere in Africa, and usually the most quiet, usually the most scarred by what they had experienced. In the many dirty conflicts across the world women are generally most vulnerable. Penny sent out a few emails every month to ask for volunteers and arrange a rota. One year in November in the email to prepare the next rota Penny left a note.

"Hi everyone,
   
I hope you are all have a happy festive season, Christmas, new year, winter solstice. Here is the rota for January. Please can you arrange a swap if there is a problem with the date. PLEASE LET ME KNOW YOU HAVE RECEIVED THIS ROTA, it saves me making lots of phone calls. If you know anyone else who would like to volunteer, I am doing some training for new people on Wednesday 17th Jan at 6.30pm. Please ask them to let me know they are coming.
   
And to finish on a Christmas note, we currently have a woman who has just arrived from Nigeria staying the week-end before she goes to
claim asylum in Croydon on Monday. Her name is Mary and she is 8 months pregnant. That's true.
  
best wishes to you all,
Penny"

What world was that baby born into? And what opportunity did the world offer that baby and its mother: Single, far from home, refugee, homeless, destitute? How similar to that world Jesus was born into in a stable far from home. But there is one crucial way that it it is a different world, and that is the fact that Jesus was born into our world two thousand years ago. Because that Nativity wasn't just the birth of one family of adoption of a teenage peasant girl, her fiance and the unique baby that God had given to them. Nativity also means that we all, all humanity, become family to God by adoption in its deepest sense. Through his birth and then life, death and resurrection that came from it he covered us over with his Holiness, washed away our Sins and folded us in with his Holy Spirit.  We became children by adoption, with God as our Father, and a relationship of the enduring Love and consistent commitment that defines family. We become family to one another, us to God & God to us, and brothers and sisters in Christ with the duty and responsibility to one another that comes with that.

The story of the world has been the gradual moral expansion of Love from family to clan, tribe, nation eventually to theoretically encompass all mankind, and even our duty to other species and the environment. Moral commands like 'Do not murder' have been present across all forms of human society. But they have always historically been limited within certain communities, while those outside, whether of a different nation or race or religion, could be killed without moral sanction. Most originally hunter-gatherer communities would have lived in separated extended families, each with their own hunting and gathering lands. Slowly those standards were applied more widely, as human society expanded from family to clan to tribe to people (the words for tribe and clan themselves are literally derived from words for family) and even more expanded human societies: nations, countries, Empires have historically been scattered with symbolic references to family.

The expansion of moral prescriptions (like do not kill), the commitment of Love, and the idea of family, from blood family to clan, tribe, nation and then the whole world, have gone hand in hand.  The development of the great Universal Empires of the ancient world, Hellenistic, Roman, Chinese, Indian brought the first idea of the whole world as one universal community. But although these communities expanded the idea of  'Do not Murder' they were only shadows of the true fulfilment of what family should mean. They had negative moral boundaries on behaviour, like forbidding killing or stealing, but without an idea of filling in the positive commitment of family.

But it was the Good News of Jesus Christ that for the first time transformed the idea of a global community based on law and order into that of a Family based on love and commitment. The Gospel tells us to love our neighbour, and tells us our neighbour must be whoever is in need; it tells us to love our enemies, as well as those who do us good.  It tells us to give, to lend, go the extra mile and turn the other cheek, without boundary or restriction and practice radical forgiveness, forgiving the seventy times seven times that any family will tell you is necessary when imperfect people are glued inseparably together and know they have to make things work. We are called to love one another as God has loved us, as a father to a child, and to love one another as Brother and sister and spread that message and community to the whole world, with the simple practical acts of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving thirsty people a drink; that go with that radical message, as they must do for any family to be real. We are called to build a worldwide community, Church, that should be a well of support in the same manner as those families we choose. This is nothing less than the expansion of our notion of Family, in its true meaning of a choice of Love and continuous commitment, to the whole world, to all of creation, to reflect the Love God has for us all and the duty we all have for each other. It is building a complete world where nobody gets left behind, and all are looked out for and cared for, because we each take it as our positive commitment to do so. So that child born in north Coventry in Winter to a refugee mother would also have a family.

And this is not just an ideal; it is a promise through God's Spirit and power.  Sometimes it may seem distant and unimaginable, but through the power of God's spirit, the birth of God as man as Jesus Christ, the family of adoption of Jesus, Mary and Joseph and the Good News of radical Love that Jesus lived and taught it becomes not just a possibility but an eventual certainty.  God's Holy Spirit gives us the power to extend Love to all humanity, despite our deep personal fallibility; the instruction of what that means in our individual lives and choices; and a vision of what that could achieve if we  make the choice and commitment to join that family the same way Mary and Joseph did in Nazareth a long time ago.  

And that is what, for me, family means and Christmas means.  Through gathering together and sharing gifts and hospitality, the tokens of the love, commitment and patience, the fundamental meaning of family; we celebrate the bonds that give meaning to our lives, through the choices we make whether due to blood or experiences we have shared. We remember the unique family of the Nativity, forged in the choice of Mary and Joseph, and the wonderful birth of the Christ-child; and we remember how that birth  means we are all adopted as family of God, children of God and brother and sister to Christ and one another, if we choose to make that commitment. And through God's power we have the chance and duty to make that bond real for all mankind, building a complete family of all mankind where no-one is forgotten or left behind.

Something worth remembering.

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