Sunday, December 28, 2008

Christmas and Family: Feast of the Holy Family and Dangerously Literalized Metaphors

There’s something about Christmas and family that I keep trying to put my mental finger on without entire success. It has to do, I think, with a phrase that kept scrolling through my dreams last night: the “invisible” family. And with the pope’s Christmas statement about the “gender” community and the rain forest . . . .

Family gatherings at Christmas time so famously disappoint that the gap between expectation and performance has become a joke, the theme of a vast para-Christmas literature mocking the absurdity that is the Christmas family gathering. The disappointment is in direct proportion to the weight of expectation that we choose to hang on this family gathering—“the” family gathering of the entire year.

The problem, it’s increasingly clear to me, is that weight—along with family itself. How we choose to view family. The weight we expect this fragile social institution to bear. A weight no social institution could ever realistically bear, without cracking. We have turned family—and a very particular cultural enshrinement of family at that: the nuclear middle-class family—into an idol, something to which we all aspire without recognizing that this superimposed symbol has nothing to do with the reality of our everyday lives, and/or our experience of family.

And that’s where that phrase “invisible family” comes into the picture for me. As I’ve noted on this blog, I cannot prepare for a family gathering on Christmas without being acutely aware of family not there, of family that has gone before me. The Christmas feast and the days of cooking, decorating, and cleaning that preface it are filled with ghosts.

It’s as if the dark weeks leading to the winter solstice begin with the feast of All Souls-All Saints, with the pre-Christian feast of Samhain: with those threshold days of remembrance as autumn gets underway, on which the Celts imagined that a veil between this world and the next is pulled aside, and the living and dead can mingle.

I see—I feel might be more accurate—a continuity between those autumnal commemorations of the dead and Christmas. The family gathered around the Christmas table is only a portion of the entire family. Those who have gone before are there, too. They have to be there, if the fragile thing called family is to work, to carry the freight of significance we heap on its shoulders.

I’m aware of the invisible family gathering at my Christmas table as I pull out recipes written in longhand by family members who prepared Christmas foods before me. I cannot look at my aunt Kat’s recipe for glazed pecans, in its swooping rounded teacher’s handwriting, with all its ticky little emendations and asides (Kat never met a recipe she couldn’t improve), without being aware of her presence in the Christmas preparation.

That presence continues through the Christmas meal itself, in which we eat foods she cooked, foods her mother and her mother’s mother cooked and served: foods without which the family Christmas would not be the family Christmas.

Christmas as a family gathering does not work, without the invisible family propping up the visible one, augmenting it, connecting it to a chain of family that stretches back to the mists at the dawn of time. Every Christmas table is surrounded by a cloud of invisible witnesses that extend the family circle far beyond anything we imagine family to be—a cloud of witnesses that open the closed circle of each family to larger circles that join family to family.

No family works apart from other families. No family functions unto itself, entire. This is what is wrong with the notion of family in our culture at present—the middle-class model of nuclear family.

That model of family simply cannot bear the weight of expectation we place on it. Our family gatherings are tense and unhappy because we expect people to play roles that vastly exceed their capacity to play.

Whereas the Holy Family we commemorate in the crèche is, properly understood, a metaphor for all family, for the human family, we have chosen to freeze the metaphor into a precise description of what family must be—and cannot ever adequately be. We have turned the metaphor into a prison of fatuous expectation: the prison of the papa, the mama, and the child. The papa who behaves unremittingly like papa; the mama who observes with every scruple her assigned role of mother and wife; the baby who completes the circle begun by the man and the woman.

The roles we assign to each member of the family circle—the roles we unthinkingly assign to Joseph, Mary, and Jesus as we set up the crèche; the roles we imagine each member of the Holy Family playing in order to keep alive our fantasy of “the” Family: those roles are impossible for any human being adequately to fulfill. We torture ourselves and our culture with bizarre, irrational, religion-rooted gender roles and family expectations that have little to do with the holy stories on which we base our fantasies.

We lack the wisdom of cultures which recognize that holy stories are metaphoric, not exact descriptions of reality, of how things must be. As Christians heap more and more weight of cultural expectation on gender roles and family—as we tell women they must be willing servants and men they must be gentle masters; as we proclaim that family is about procreation and preserving gender balance—we lose sight of the originating metaphor of Holy Family, which has nothing at all to do with gender roles carved in stone, despite the pope's Christmas message.

Think about it: think what happens if we literalize the metaphor of Holy Family and turn that metaphor into a prescription for family life. The Holy Family is a decidedly strange family, indeed—one in which the mother became pregnant without having known man, and in which she remained a virgin throughout her marriage; in which the son is the son of God and did not marry or procreate; in which the shadowy father figure who conveniently dies off early in the marriage gladly takes a vow never to have carnal knowledge of his wife. That’s the metaphor of male-female relationships and family life we want to impose on everyone, on all families? Even as we loudly proclaim that the raison d’etre of this metaphor—of a family centered on holy virginity and parthogenesis—is procreation?

Families work best when we stop expecting fathers to be lords and masters, mothers to be servants, children to be procreative fodder for a new generation that is only about biological reproduction and not about transmission of the cultural values necessary to keep humanity alive. Families work best when mothers sometimes play the father's role and fathers sometimes adopt the maternal posture; when aunts and uncles and grandparents supplement the parental role of father and mother; when the family circle is not closed but open—open to other families, to other human beings outside the tight closed circle with which Christian pro-family rhetoric is excessively (and idolatrously) concerned.

Today is the Catholic liturgical feast of the Holy Family. The Catholic Culture website informs us on this occasion, via Rev. Bernard Strasser, OSB, that "[t]he primary purpose of the Church in instituting and promoting this feast is to present the Holy Family as the model and exemplar of all Christian families" (" Today, the Clerical Whispers website announces, there will be another mass demonstration for "the" family in Spain, as there was last year—a demonstration rooted in the fascist history of the Catholic church in Spain, resistant to social developments that permit diverse models of family to flourish beside "the" model these demonstrations honoring the Holy Family hold up to us: the nuclear, middle-class one man, one woman model of family.

Sadly, such demontrations completely overlook the most fundamental message that the metaphor of Holy Family seeks to impart. This is that families function well when they open to those beyond the family circle. Not when they guard that tight little circle as if all civilization depends on keeping it closed. Families function at all only when they enlarge their boundaries to permit people outside the family circle to offer insight to those inside the circle. Families work only when family values are not about maintaining tightly closed circles organized around rigid gender expectations, but about recognizing the need for all families to connect to all other families. In the human family . . . .