By Louis Phillips. Louis is Director of Church Relations at The Center for Faith, Sexuality, and Gender.
I grew up in a large family, as the youngest of six kids, and I have the fondest memories of Christmas: homemade cinnamon rolls, loud talking (mostly yelling), and a sea of wrapping paper covering the living room floor. As I got older, our gatherings got larger. My oldest sibling got married when I was ten, and I became an uncle at 16. Today, my five siblings and me are all married, and I have 14 nieces and nephews. Gathering a family of 28 for Christmas is nothing short of chaos. It’s beauty… but nonetheless, chaos.
One year, my parents learned that a friend of our family, a single mother with two kids, was going to be alone on Christmas. She had only recently moved to the area from across the country and had no relatives nearby. My mother wanted to invite her and her kids to join us for our Christmas traditions, so she asked our family what we thought.
It was a conflicting conversation, to say the least. Yes, we felt bad for this friend, but our family time was too important. One of my siblings said, “Not for Christmas Day, right? That's just our family, no one else. This is the only time we all get to be together, just us!”
I remember hearing the deliberations and feeling uneasy. I loved it when I got to hang out with just my family, but I also loved sharing my family with others. I won't lie to you, I have a pretty awesome family! In fact, one of my greatest joys is bringing others in to experience my family. I learned this from my parents—it’s part of their DNA. The Phillips home is a borderline hostel, and it has an open door policy for any and all regardless of day or time. I have countless memories of a family friend walking through the front door while I was eating dinner with my family and my mom immediately getting up to grab another plate. No questions asked. Just a place at the table.
But what about Christmas? Was the open door policy still in play?
We show what we value most by what we are most protective of. I know my family is not unique in this struggle. I’ve heard countless Christian family conversations about the importance of celebrating Christmas, or at least a part of it, with “just family.”
I’m not saying this is always wrong, but I will say that our desire to protect “family time” from other people’s presence doesn't seem especially Christian. In fact, it feels ironic in light of what we are celebrating at Christmas.
As Christians, we celebrate Christmas to remember the birth of Jesus—the one whose life and sacrifice opened the way for our adoption into the only family that will exist in eternity. Because of Christ, we are now called co-heirs and belong to the family of God. If anyone could have been protective about “family time,” it was Jesus. He actually had the right to be stingy with his father in light of how unworthy we are to be called his siblings. And yet, Jesus showed his love for us by breaking open the doors of heaven and saying, “Welcome home!”
A few years ago, a friend of mine was going to be alone for Christmas. She was used to spending time by herself, and yet being alone on this day seemed more difficult than usual. Dear friends of hers knew she was going to be alone for Christmas, so they decided to invite her to their home. They gave her a bedroom to stay in, a schedule of their traditions and plans, and then said, “You are invited to everything. Nothing is restricted to just our family.”
No caveats. No parameters. Just an unequivocal open invitation.
This family could have made a legitimate argument as to why they needed “just family time.” They had recently moved to another country and hadn’t seen some of their children in months. This would be the first time they were all together in their new home, and they didn’t know when the next time would be. Surely, a few hours on Christmas morning alone were permissible, or even the proper thing to do?
Instead, this family modeled the true meaning of Christmas to my friend in a profound way, by protecting the thing they valued most: the family of God.
I’ve been engaging in conversations about sexuality and gender for almost a decade now. And while I believe posture and theology have their place in this discussion, one of the most important pieces of the puzzle is the family of God. What are we inviting people into? Are there any caveats? You and I model the family of God with our own families, whether we like it or not. So my question for us all is, “Are we doing it like Christ? Or are we showing people that His blood isn’t as thick as our families’?”
If we are going to take the historic Christian sexual ethic seriously, then we have to reassess our ways of doing family. We must face the reality that there will be many who choose to follow Christ and in so doing may lose family or never build a family of their own. This number will be disproportionately higher for our LGBTQ/SSA brothers and sisters. Do we care enough about them to change our ways of doing family? Or are we going to keep justifying our “just our family” policies that are nowhere to be found in scripture?
In the gospel of Mark, Jesus says:
“Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel,who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.” (Mark 10:29-30)
Jesus leaves it up to us, Christians, to fulfill that promise for the “now in this time.” Are we fulfilling this promise for one another? Are we even trying? Maybe Christmas is the place some of us need to start, since it’s the day we can be most protective of.
Is there a day in the year that you keep as “just our family”? Sure.
But please don't make it Christmas.
Please don't be stingy with your family on the day we celebrate the birth of the one who gave us his family.
Please don't celebrate your Christmas gathering in such a way that Christ himself wouldn’t be invited.
At Christmas, we get to model to the world God’s radical upside-down kingdom understanding of family. As recipients of that family invitation, it’s our privilege to turn around and extend the same invitation to others!