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Meanings of Christmas: A journey of the heart to hope: Today's articles in our series are sermons given at Christmas by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, and the Archbishop of York, Dr John Habgood.

OF ALL the seasons of the Church's year Christmas stands out as a time to focus on family life. The debates begun in 1993 are set to continue as we examine this aspect of our national life. But behind the debates and statistics lie people. I shall not forget the young mother I met in Birmingham, deserted by her husband but bringing up her children on her own. Or the courage I have seen in families facing the loss of their homes.

This year, as in every year, we are surrounded by images of the Holy Family. In churches, schools, homes and shopping precincts we see Mary and Joseph with the young child in their midst. I want to anticipate some of what we shall be discussing in 1994 and to ask the simple question 'What does the birth of Christ reveal about family life?' Three truths take me that leap across the centuries and can transform our understanding today.

First, as we look at them we see a human family - 'He came to his own'. The Lord of the Eternity, the Creator and Ruler of the Universe comes to this earth as a child. It was difficult to grasp then - it is difficult to grasp today. There is something about the reality of the Incarnation that is deeply mysterious. It is as if we cannot cope with the fact that God became flesh and blood. But the reality is that in the human story of Jesus God discloses himself. In Jesus, God involved himself in all the frailties of human life.

Jesus's family was a human family. It was also a real family. A family that had to live with the realities - the tensions, the pains and the joys - of family life. Mary and Joseph knew all about pressure. Indeed, theirs were some of the worst experiences that any of us might have to face in life. Divorce, homelessness and murder are all elements within the Christmas story. Joseph contemplates divorcing Mary when he discovers she is pregnant. In Bethlehem there is no room at the inn. King Herod plots to kill the infant Jesus.

As Jesus grew, they had to face the turmoil of having a teenager and then a young adult at home. Whether it was in the temple at the age of 12 or in Mary's struggles to understand Jesus's ministry we see those relationships being worked out. Real families cannot avoid such experiences.

Yet how good it is to know that God understands at first hand the rea1ities of human family life in all its frailty. Every family will know something of that frailty. For instance, all of us know the pain and misery that separation and divorce can bring. None of us is immune. None of us can abdicate responsibility for what is happening in our society. We are all in this together. The Church, the Government, other agencies, communities and individuals - each of us has a part to play. Every one of us can do more to improve the quality of family life and to support parents under pressure. Every one of us can play a part in building a moral framework for our society both by word and by example. Those who suffer - children, parents and grandparents alike - warrant our care and concern.

Real marriages too are difficult as well as fulfilling. They are 'for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer . . . till death us do part'. Marriage is not only for the easy times - but for the times when things get tough - during sickness and unemployment, in times of tragedy and of strained relationships. Marriages are not shielded from the realities of human existence. Mary and Joseph experienced that - as do we.

In those situations good families care, protect, say sorry and forgive. A child in such a family learns models for behaviour which will provide a pattern for their own relationships. Such families also provide a structure that can counter our besetting sin of self- centredness. No one member - be that father, mother or child - should have their own way all the time. It is all too easy for the call for obedience to mask a desire for domination, or the demand for freedom to disguise mere selfishness. Discipline and love are not opposites; love leads into obedience and obedience helps the development of love. Families that lose these, lose the framework that keeps families together. Christmas calls us to look at a family where those things had to be worked out in real life.