The baby in the manger is ours

MEANINGS OF CHRISTMAS: Margaret Hebblethwaite, assistant editor of the Tablet, continues our series of Christmas reflections with a look at the family values that Jesus brought into the world.
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Christmas is supposed to be about poverty and homelessness - with the king of the world laid in a manger because there is no room in the inn. But the typically British Christmas is about all the opposite values - drinking, eating, spending money, and snuggling up at home. Christmas is a religious festival which our secular society has taken over and wrecked.

Or is it?

Above all the luxurious aspects I have mentioned is the fact that Christmas is family time. All over the country people have gone home for Christmas. Divided families get back together again. Neglected grannies and distant aunts are resurrected and given a place round the table. Children take pride of place as everything possible is done for their surprise and delight. Even wayward teenagers turn round and head home, inevitably choosing to spend Christmas in the bosom of the family they often profess to despise. And traditional family values lie at the heart of Christianity.

Or do they?

Jesus was shockingly disruptive of traditional family values. He ran away from his parents when he was as young as 12, provoking his long-suffering mother to expostulate, "Why have you treated us like this?" (Luke ii,48). He led Joanna - the wife of a respectable man with an important job - away from home (and children?) to join him in his wandering life on the road (Luke viii,3). He told a man who wanted to bury his father to skip the funeral (Matthew viii,22). He said that he had come to "set a man against his father and a daughter against her mother" (Matthew x,35). He even said his followers had to "hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters" (Luke xiv,26). All in all, Jesus launched an attack on family values such as has rarely been seen in history.

Or did he?

Alongside Jesus's negative attack on the old family was a new and positive message couched precisely in family terms. He invited his followers to find their siblings, parents and children "a hundredfold" among the needy (Mark x,30). Though he had broken away from family life, he invited anyone to become his relative: "whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother" (Matthew xii,50). Jesus changes the concept of family, attacking the nuclear version in order to stretch the bonds of relationship wider, until all are embraced without privilege or distinction.

Jesus is, after all, in the title he chose for himself and that occurs 82 times in the Gospels, the "Son of Man". We miss the significance of that until we realise it is more accurately translated "Son of Humanity", or even "Child of Humanity". Translations have stayed with the traditional "Son of Man" merely because it is familiar.

The birth of a baby is a wonderful thing, and most wonderful of all, of course, for the parents. What we are told by Jesus's title, "Child of Humanity", is that at Christmas time we all become his parents. Because Jesus did not come from a traditional family - he was not the son of his mother's husband - he was able to become the Child of Humanity, with no one man, or race, or generation, or sex, taking priority in resemblance to him.

Christians are used to thinking of God as their father, and Jesus as their elder brother. Some have begun to think of God as their mother, an analogy that Julian of Norwich explored in relation to Jesus. But the idea that we are Jesus's parents, so that God takes on the vulnerability of being our child, is unfamiliar. And yet this is the good news brought to the shepherds, "to you is born this day . . . a baby".

Christmas is the time when those who are parents and those who are not find themselves on equal footing. We all have a child born to us. We all have someone to love, who will love us. We all have someone who resembles us. We all have someone in whom to invest our hopes. We all have a future.

And so it is perfectly appropriate that the family is remembered in a special way on Jesus's birthday, so long as the love learned at home stretches out to embrace all who have God as their father. Never were there more religious words for any Christmas carol than "Feed the world, let them know it's Christmastime."