Perhaps the most iconic image of Christmas, and rightly so, is that of the Nativity Scene. Displayed in homes and churches the world over; re-enacted in schools and parish halls; soft light falling on the baby Jesus asleep in the hay, being adored on either side by Mary and Joseph. The Holy Family presented to the world as that ideal model of the Domestic Church, the perfect example of holiness and humility. This is what our families are called to be, holy and humble, trusting in God above all things and at all times. Focusing on the Holy Family, seeking to follow their example, helps us achieve this goal.
But where do we start in our quest to become like the Holy Family? In truth the very prospect can be overwhelmingly daunting. How many husbands and fathers can look at Saint Joseph and not worry that we’ll never be as devoted to God and our family the way he is? How many wives and mothers are daunted at the very prospect of seeking to follow the example of Immaculate Mary? How can we ever truly be like them?
Perhaps it will soothe our anxiety if we widen our image of the iconic Nativity Scene to include the first people to witness it on that original holy night of Christmas. The shepherds, poor, lowly shepherds hasten to follow the directions of the angel. They come into the presence of the Holy Family, telling all that the angel had spoken to them. These are men with no formal or profound theological or spiritual education. These are simple, hardworking men, no doubt often looked down on by others in society. Yet they are committed to loving God as best they can, and so when they receive word that the Messiah has been born they rush off to witness the sight of the Holy Family. By witnessing them, by laying eyes upon the Nativity, they are drawn even deeper into the love of God. Their lives are changed forever that night. They won’t have any more money, nor any greater social standing or education. They will remain poor for the rest of their lives, and they will die poor. But those lives will never be the same after that holy night. They will not forget what it was like to be in the presence of the Holy Family, to gaze with love and wonder at the Baby Jesus, just as Joseph and Mary were doing. And they will not cease to praise and glorify God for that sight.
Perhaps what we need to do in order to be like the Holy Family is to first be like the shepherds – willing to leave everything behind and hasten to come into the presence of the Nativity. There we simply let the sight of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph come into our minds and hearts, allowing who they are as a family to influence and change who we are as a family. Then, like the shepherds, we too will praise and glorify God for all we have seen and heard.
May the soft and gentle light of the Nativity be in our families and in our hearts this Christmas, and every day thereafter.
Stephen Deighan is the Schools Liaison Coordinator, Parishes of Steelstown and Culmore, Diocese of Derry