The first Christmas I remember receiving Christmas cards addressed to me personally was the year I moved to Denver. Delighted by this very adult practice of sending and receiving Christmas cards, I tore them open with delight when I got home from work each evening, savoring the familiar faces in the pictures and scripts in the margins. The only one I can remember anymore was a hand-drawn depiction of a young, brown family, holding their infant son under the shelter of a graffiti-covered bus stop. It was blank on the back, no further explanation provided. The friend who sent the card was living in the St. Louis Catholic Worker house. She shared that this was the image one of her youth group students drew when asked to create a picture of a modern-day Holy Family.
An Unlikely Savior
As Catholics, we lean hard into the story of the Incarnation — God made flesh, physically delivered into the muck of everyday life, in the midst of poverty and vulnerability. Perfection amidst imperfections. We reverence every aspect of this story: the Annunciation, the Visitation, Joseph’s dream, the stable, the manger, the swaddling clothes, the unlikely family who received the Savior into their lives with complete humility and trust.
On the Feast of the Holy Family, our relationship with this family is certainly worth some further thought.
Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and Us
At this point, our churches are bedazzled with crèches, poinsettias, glittering gold and white garments, cloths, and vestments. Our noses detect the lingering smell of incense. Choirs are singing out the joyful news, all because our God chose us. He chose to come to us in a way that we might understand. Born in a body that we would recognize. Born into a family we could relate to.
In our own ways, we re-create the beautiful scene of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus with live nativities, posadas, our mantle crèches, the carefully-chosen designs on our Christmas cards, and in our illuminated yard decor. This practice of remembering is the sacred, holy work of our souls. Our participation in these traditions put us back in touch with the story that reminds us who (and Whose) we are.
And yet there is a temptation to perfect the scene, because we are talking about Jesus and family after all, and because we are uncomfortable with the idea that Jesus’ family might have had an un-photogenic moment. In our own ways, we dress up the one who arrived bare. We can focus only on the story’s beauty and neglect the coinciding rawness of the Christ-child’s arrival. In the same way that imagery can distract us from the core of the Holy Family, I have found that it can also call me back to it.
Would We Recognize the Holy Family Today?
Personally I have found that Salesian Brother Mickey O’Neil McGrath is an artist worth keeping an eye on during this season, especially when my own depictions of Christmas become too glamorous. A talented iconographer, Brother Mickey creates a new icon of the Holy Family each year, many based on events occurring within the year. Some of his most notable works are Syrian Mary, Joseph and Jesus or Resting in Flight. The images are both playful and stirring in their vibrancy and depth. They give a tangible identity to the vague characters we have imagined in our mind’s’ eye.
The question his work poses is an important one: Who is it that personifies a family on the move? Ostracized? One for whom we might just not be able to make an exception? How are we imagining Jesus’ unexpected arrival this year?
Truthfully, I don’t know exactly who this is for me. Are they the ones closest to me in my own family, or those I’ve kept at a distance and struggle to see in a “holy light”? I have a hunch that follow-through on my part with any of these individuals would be both a welcomed gesture and an offering that the Incarnate God might find pleasing.
We are only four days into the Christmas season. As we savor this week of celebration, the Spirit seems to be nudging each of us to recognize the Holy Family not in their perfection, but in their flesh. Are there people in my life toward whom I’ve struggled to make an exception? Extend hospitality? Who have arrived inconveniently? Unexpectedly?
These are our opportunities for life-altering, unscripted, living nativity moments.
Who are the unlikely blessings in your life?
Katie Cassady is a wife and mom to two little girls in Denver, CO. Steeped in theological reflection, beekeeping and motherhood, she is appreciative of any and all wisdom she can glean from those living intentional lives of faith. Find out more about her, here.