The motif of family makes Advent and Christmas especially endearing. We catch our breath with Mary as she learns from Gabriel that she has conceived. We struggle with Mary and Joseph as they respond to her untimely pregnancy. We watch and wait as they travel to Bethlehem, and we rejoice as they become the Holy Family.

Our own memories of past Advents and Christmases often center on our family and our childhood. We might recall plans whispered conspiratorially to buy that special gift for mom or dad. Perhaps we think of brightly wrapped packages bulging from under the tree for grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, parents, siblings–or for children, grandchildren, and maybe even great-grandchildren. We might remember happy times ice skating, singing, making snowmen, or walking on the beach. We might recall snuggling on a lap, being read to, making forts, or playing with dolls. We might remember feeling stuffed like a turkey after a sumptuous meal. There are thousands of Advent and Christmas memories that evoke tender feelings of family.

As a pastor, I’m aware of other, less happy, memories that many of us carry with us, memories that painfully reappear at this time each year. Society’s expectations of a happy childhood sometimes collide with our own remembered experience. Perhaps we were ridiculed or rejected. We may remember receiving material gifts that substituted for genuine love. Perhaps we remain estranged from a loved one who refuses to make contact. In addition, these holidays are the very time when many of us feel pangs of grief and loss most acutely.

Caught between heightened expectations and divergent feelings, we can be especially thankful that the message of Advent and Christmas far surpasses the idealized family. For the depth of meaning we encounter in these seasons proclaims that we are part of God’s family. As we anticipate the arrival of the Christ Child and welcome the Son of God into the human condition, our memories of imperfection and our current disappointments constellate around a hope far greater than ourselves. If we let them, these seasons can lift us to a new vision of belonging. It is a vision that is more realistic and well grounded. For the true gift that God is waiting for us to unwrap is a forgiveness that can restore broken relationships, and the comfort of knowing that our God-given family is always growing and is never without those whom we love.

All Saints’ is such a family in Christ. It is also a safe community in which to practice family love in the ideal of God’s unconditional affirmation. The love we feel for our own family members, however satisfying or disappointing, multiplies within the family of faith, precisely because of the seasons we observe and the gift we celebrate each December.

So bring your own family and invite your neighbors to become part of the holy family of All Saints’. After all, Mary and Joseph will soon be heading toward Bethlehem, where they will be waiting for us to join them as part of their Holy Family.