Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Twelve Joys of Christmas: The Joy of the (Holy or Un-) Family

The Twelve Joys of Christmas: 
The Joy of the (Holy or Un-) Family

Missy and I went up front after mass on Christmas morning at Our Lady of Guadalupe in Austin to look more closely at the creche. I usually spend most of my time admiring the animals because they look pretty much like animals. Joseph and Mary and baby Jesus and the shepherds look sort of unrealistic to me. I mean, they look German, to tell you the truth. And I'm pretty sure they really were Palestinians. Also, for peasants, they are decked out in awfully beautiful costumes.

I have a lovely Navidad o tres (o mas) that I bought in the market at San Antonio. I still have at least one, I mean, because I've given several of them away over the years to people I love. I like those more, even though the characters still don't look like Palestinians. They do, however, look something like Central American peasants or laborers or something other than very well-dressed Renaissance Germans. 

But seriously I really do like the whole creche tradition. The nativity scene, as they say. The essence of Christmas, they also say, is the coming of Christ. The birth of Christ. Short version: Christ. And, obviously, that is true. Except when it isn't. And it isn't exactly true when you leave out everything else involved in that event except the babe, the son of Mary. Like, especially the animals. OK, also Mary and Joseph and the shepherds. And those wise guys from Orient R

My point is, or could be if I would just focus, that Jesus the Christ is NOT presented to us as a theological abstraction or as a person (divine, human, both, or otherwise) without a context, without a material web of relationship, without . . . a family. 

Growing up, I always heard of "The Holy Family." And, once I grew up just a little more, I was pretty sure that the phrase didn't apply to my own specific family. I mean, I think you've already heard about Missy's reign of terror over her three brothers (Ironic Advent #27). My father and mother, who had read Dr. Spock, allowed her to do that that, whereas I'm sure that St. Joseph would have protected the holy infant so tender and mild from the fingernails of a vicious sister. 

And, in typical Ben Camino fashion, I appreciate that the great feast, the great celebration of Christmas (I know some people aren't celebrating or feasting, but please allow me my inflated language, dear reader), is put in a very human context, a very familiar context, to all human beings in all human cultures. Family. 

Families of course can be a pain in the donkey (am I going too fast for you? just wait, because I start going faster), but for the purposes of this reflection and, also, just because it is true, I want to reflect on the beautiful and emotionally resonant fact (to me at least) that the entire Christmas event, the story of this gracious gift to humanity, is embedded (literally) in the reality of a family. Another gracious gift to humanity. Except when it isn't.

Jesus is the reason for the season says the sign at Bud's Carwash. But the creche and the gospel readings and the entire artistic tradition of Christmas tell me not to forget Mary and Joseph. As we share gifts and celebrate love, we also share and celebrate the gift of family, the Holy Family. And, I think, our own not-so-holy families

Even the Holy Family might be an falsification if we insist that "holy" signifies a kind of calm, undisturbed, transcendental state of being. Holy bliss interpreted as a kind of perpetual  sleep-walking in heavenly peace. This doesn't fit well with my experience of family. I don't "relate" to it, as we used to like to say in Junior High English class.

But it also doesn't fit well with the experience of "the Holy Family" as described in the ancient records we have. Saint Joseph was going to divorce Mary until an angel stopped him. Jesus sneaked out of a caravan and stayed behind in Jerusalem once, given his parents quite a scare. And they let him know they didn't like it. (Being Jesus, he answered rather cryptically. I'd say he was "passive-aggressive" but I'm sure that's a sign of my own essential not goodness.) Mary might have been a little pushy with Jesus about that wine at Cana of Galilee, and he might have let her know about it in his usual cryptic way (more business about his Father's business). 

Later someone sent a message that his family was outside the door, and wanted to talk to him. He said (cryptically?), "Who are my mother and brothers?" I can imagine just as several people in the audience were pointing outside, thinking he might have temporarily lost his sense of direction (or worse), Jesus pointed straight to his best friends (his disciples the text says) and said, "This is my family." Oops. What ever happened to honor your father and mother, Rabbi?

Well this might distress us. Except when it doesn't. I mean, my extended family is SO . . . dramatic than I kind of like the fact that the Holy Family might have occasionally experienced some friction, even some trauma. 

But there they are. In the manger. Up front in church, part of the story leading us to worship and wonder. 

My family? Where do I start. I have so much to say that I won't say very much at all. Just this very, very recent experience. How recent, you ask? Today. Well, the second day of Christmas, 2016, December 26th, the feast of St. Stephen. 

Today my family had a kind of reunion in the little cowboy town of Lampasas, Texas. About an hour and a half from Austin. It's really more interesting than that, because, more than a reunion it was a union. I did get to see my cousin JoAnn and her husband Bud, whom I had met before. But we Rickes (my brother Gordon, his wife Margaret, our sister Missy, and myself) also got to meet our second cousin Julie Cain Landrum, her husband Andrew Landrum, and our second cousin Rebecca Greco--none of whom we had ever met before. 

In fact, Rebeccca, who for reasons I won't go into this time, had never connected to any of her father's family until just the last few years, so she was discovering a whole family which was already hers (technically) but still not hers (experientially) before today. 

Needless to say, it was quite an event. There were first-time meetings, there was amazing food, there may have been drink, I'm ashamed to say that there was no dancing, but there was fine playing and singing around a the bonfire. Really good playing and singing. [Editor's note, the author may have been playing and singing].

There was also a visit to a 19th Century cemetery on the property. And, more than anything else, there were stories. Family stories. Some stories most of us knew but bore repeating. Other stories only some of us knew that needed to be shared with the others. Some stories that none of us knew except the specific story-teller. 

A family is a material web of relationship, as I said before. It is also a kind of shared consciousness, a shared imaginative experience, more than the sum of its parts. It is a book, always in revision, always being edited, always being interpreted by us, and always interpreting us. That book, that shared imaginative experience, was expanded today. And every one of us in our family is a little bigger. Or perhaps, since in a way we are one, we are stretched out onto a wider field of concern (I'm playing with a John Donne image here, but trying not to give in to him completely). 

Here is how who we were grew into who are.

A girl, age twelve, shows up at the home of the grandmother she had never known to ask for a picture of or some information about the father she had never known. 

A couple of feisty (I won't say rowdy, oops, just did) Austin rockers, figure they will try to make a go of starting a winery out in rocky Lampasas, on one of the prettiest (and loneliest) patches of God's earth you will ever see. 

Along the way they both get cancer. And both survive and are cancer-free. 

A young girl, not quite so young anymore, runs away, sort of she says, with her slightly older sister, to Los Angeles. Gets a job the first day. Meets a nice Baptist of whom Catholic mother would never approve. Things happen. Some other things. They find a priest to bless the wedding just in time to return home to Houston. 

Everyone says, you have our father's sense of humor. 

I find out that my cousin's daughter's husband is CRAZY about Tolkien and is a writer and I need to check out his blog. 

I find out that my cousin's husband's son is CRAZY about Tolkien (and Shakespeare) and is  big-time into literary research and I need to check out his blog. 

Somebody almost didn't come because her beloved little chihuahua escaped the night before, frightened by the neighbor's fireworks. She lives in the hills so finding "Rosie" seemed impossible. Sister and brother walk and drive up and down the local roads. Until a little neighbor boy comes chasing her down the street, calling "Rosie, Rosie." Tears are shed. She holds Rosie for an hour straight. Then gets cleaned up and comes to the party. 

She comes with her sister-in-law. Another cancer survivor. Going strong. Telling stories. Witnessing to the bond we share. 

Brothers harmonize around a fire. They've been doing it for longer than our long-lost cousin has been alive. And she is 39. Even if I were humble, which I'm not, I would still say, they are damn good. 

Also, before I forget--my Lord, this is a good-looking family. 

Years ago those same brothers with the brother of the father of the long-lost cousin AND the younger brother and sister of the (then) young girl who ran away to Los Angeles would gather around a fire in the backyard of their late mother and sing much the same way. In fact, some of the same songs. Many of them are gone now.  But they felt close to us in our songs tonight. 

We walk together to an old grave site on the property, admiring the cow and the bullock, staring at us from across the fence. We wonder why the settlers started burying at this site. Turns out, lots of arrow heads and other artifacts have been found on the same site. Maybe it was a Comanche burial ground before the settlers came. Those of us who know we have some Native-American ancestry feel even more at home on this amazing land.

You know. It's not easy to feel at home in this world. As you grow older, it's not always easy to keep a family together. Heck, my kids were all in Brooklyn for Christmas while I was in Texas. But, I like to think we are pretty close. I'd be very, very unhappy to think we weren't. That they didn't love me and that they didn't know that I loved them. 

I have a friend about the same age with children about the same age, and he was lamenting to me that they were all so distant. They all seemed to NOT like him. That hurt. 

I've done plenty to be unlikeable in my day, both to my children and others. But somehow, probably thanks to the influence of their mom and other wise mentors (and maybe I did some things right), they genuinely seem to love and care for me, for their mom, for each other. When my brother Noel was dying it became a total family event. My two sons were in Brooklyn, and they kind of just were the people you hoped they would be in such a situation. Before I could get out to New York, they would cover for me. When I got there, they comforted me. After he passed, everyone else dropped everything and flew in to join us.

And it goes further than that. My sister, childless, loves these wonderful adult children of mine as if they were her own. Feels for them as if they were hers. And they, my amazing children, treat her the same way. I've been an emotional wreck lately, but never more so than when my sister cries and tells me how wonderful my children are. 

Hmmmm. I guess that's not always the case. I'm sure the nuns wouldn't call mine a Holy Family. But I feel blessed. 

I know I had real problems with my family when I was younger. Stayed away a bit. Sure things were difficult at home, but more than that, I was just establishing my own life, my own boundaries, my own thing. Some people freak out about that, both parents and others. I'm pretty sure that's just natural and normal. Ducklings leave the nest, trauma enough for one life. But eventually they also REALLY leave. They quack goodbye and are off to make their own little ducks to jump out of trees

But because we humans both do THAT (necessary and good but also painful separating) AND THIS (relating for a life-time as extended family), we have unique family joys and unique family "issues." 

It takes patience, love, boundaries, and communication (not my strong suit, unless we mean writing long essays). But it's possible. As long as we remember it doesn't happen in a day. Sometimes it happens after 39 years. You finally meet your family. Or it takes a few years of adjustment before parents become less of the authority and more of the wise (if goofy) mentors. 

But the unique slant of the Christmas story is that families are not just warp and woof of human life, but they are "embedded" in our finest stories of love, and flourishing, and, if I may, salvation. 

Jesus finally saw his cousin (the one who kicked his momma's tummy when pregnant Mary came to visit) again down at the River Jordan. My cousin's daughter is named Jordan. I am Jordan's third cousin, I guess. My name is Joseph. Joseph was the husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus. You see how it works? Cue "The Circle of Life."   

My family.     

My long-lost cousin shares with us the New Testament the father she never met carried in Vietnam. Shares a copy of the picture she got from the Veteran's Administration. She was an adult by then. It was the  first time she had ever seen his face. We all say how much she looks like him. She is a beauty. He was a handsome devil. Literally. OK, I guess that isn't literal

As she holds it tenderly in her hand, we all reach in and touch the New Testament, remembering him. Honoring this story. Feeling in our fingers and our hearts, the flawed, painful, but today joyous gift of family reunion. Or union, as the case may be.

We aren't the Holy Family. I'm not even sure the Holy Family is the Holy Family if you mean what I think the nuns at Our Lady of Mercy sometimes meant. But I'm glad Jesus had Mary and Joseph. They needed him, the theologians say. He needed them, my gut tells me. 

The fire is dying down. We sing "Won't you look down upon me Jesus, you've got to help me make a stand. You've just got to see me through another day." We pack up. We hug. And say goodbye. Tears may have been shed. 
The Unholy family stretches a little wider. 

long-lost cousins


  1. Good piece. About 10 years ago we had a reunion with cousins I hadn't seen since 1964. It was very good. Even though the cousins were brothers, I'm not sure they would have gotten together if it hadn't been a cousins reunion.
    Shared imaginations do unite a family and disparate imaginations separate them.