One of the most common questions I get around the holidays from (mostly) young adults in our congregation goes something like this: I was raised in a really messed-up family (religious or irreligious). Now that my life is being transformed by the gospel, how do I re-enter my broken family system over the holidays without getting sucked back into those self-destructive patterns and relationships? How can I go home for Christmas the right way?
As one who’s had my fair share of challenges over the holidays, I feel the pain, awkwardness, and humanity in these cries for help. The good news is that God meets us in our vulnerability and brokenness. In fact, one could argue that the Advent season is all about the messiness of returning home. Let me offer a few thoughts from the narrative of Scripture that might help those of us whose home lives seem impossible to cling to a few threads of hope during this holiday season.
Advent: Remembering Our Broken Homes
During the season of Advent, we often turn to Isaiah to help us remember God’s beautiful promises to his people. These so-called “Messianic Prophecies” point us back to an epoch in redemptive history when the people of God were mired in the darkness of exile: thousands of miles from home, with slim chances for an imminent rescue. In the midst of this darkness, the prophet Isaiah publicly declares what had to seem like a trite, distant reality to the exiles:
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing. - Isaiah 35:10
Home. That’s essentially what Isaiah was telling the people of God: one day, you’re going to really come home. Implicitly, however, I think he was also reminding them of their origin story, a drama of generational cycles of idolatry, sin, suffering, betrayal, and broken relationships. Isaiah doesn’t gloss over the painful realities of their past, but instead deftly piles on poetic imagery of despair: “a wilderness… dry land… desert… the haunt of jackals.” Talk about a messed-up family!
We need to keep this in mind when we start to get overwhelmed or anxious with the possibilities of going home: everyone comes from a broken home. Beginning in Genesis 3 and continuing to the present day, we see that humanity, in an unsuccessful attempt to create a “home” apart from God, ended up alienating ourselves from our true home: God himself. Rather than the security, acceptance, and freedom we were designed to experience at home with God, we now feel the toxic effects of sinful guilt, shame, and fear, particularly and most intensely in our family relationships. Advent reminds us that we are never truly home in this world, and that even the best homes are broken homes.
Advent: Remembering A Better Home
But this story of broken homes is not the final word. Isaiah reminds us,
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (35:10)
Isaiah predicted that when the Messiah came, he would show us the way to our true and better home with God. To a dwelling marked by joy and gladness, forever free from sorrow and sighing. And that’s exactly what we celebrate at the dawn of the Advent season - the Messiah, Jesus Christ, took up residence in this world as a human being (Jn 1:14). Jesus was born outside the comforts of a sanitized home (Luke 2:7), and lived the majority of his life as a homeless man (Matt 8:20). On the cross, he became spiritually homeless and fatherless so that we could be brought home and adopted as God’s sons and daughters (Matt 27:46). The resurrected and glorified Jesus makes his home in us by the power of the Holy Spirit (Rom 8:9-10), and gives us a foretaste of our eternal home by creating a new spiritual family called the church (Eph 1:22-23). One day in the not-so-distant future, we will be reunited with our Father as he establishes his new home on this earth with his people (Rev 21).
If you’re united to Christ by faith, this story of Advent becomes the narrative that redefines your past, secures your future, and allows you to live differently in the present.
Advent: Re-Entering Home with a New Presence
If you understand that you have a better home in Jesus, it actually frees you to be a better participant in your broken home in very practical ways. Let me give you several examples of what this could look like as you go home this Christmas:
1. You can go home free from the bondage of home.
Most of us live under the control of the home we grew up in. We either tend to mythologize the home we grew up in, setting up impossible expectations that crush us; or to demonize the home we grew up in, so desperate to create a home opposite of our own that we create the same crushing expectations for ourselves and others. In both cases, we have confused our broken home and our better home. If our better home is ultimately with Jesus, we need not be enslaved or haunted by the ghosts of Christmas past. Home is not where we hang our hats: home is where God is.
2. You can go home free to enter the mess of home.
The fear, guilt, and shame of going home can be overwhelming, and for some the temptation may be to simply disengage over the holidays. A disengaged presence, in the form of either quiet seething or loud yelling, is a dangerous presence. Jesus didn’t avoid the mess of our lives, but rather chose to take on flesh and fully identify himself with our fears, sins, wounds, and insecurities (Hebrews 2:14). If our better home is with Jesus, we can be free to engage the messiness of our broken homes with the power and presence of Jesus.
3. You can go home free to forgive.
Christmas can be a painful time for many people, because it stirs up memories of unresolved conflicts, disappointments, unmet expectations, and even victimization. Our hearts ache for the closure of telling off that person who caused us so much pain, or receiving a healing word from one who’s long withheld it. If our better home is with Jesus, we can be free from the need for closure (which rarely comes and is never as satisfying as we think). Instead, we can give what we’ve received in spades through the death and resurrection of Jesus: forgiveness.
4. You can go home free to love and serve.
So often we have a hard time going home at Christmas because – if we’re honest – we need the chaos and struggle to boost our sense of self. This need drives us to use people rather than love them. If our better home is with Jesus, then we know that we’re loved, we’re delighted in, and we’re accepted as sons and daughters. We don’t need the approval, validation, or acceptance of our broken homes to know that we belong. This understanding frees us to love and serve because we’ve been loved and served by Jesus.
So, this Christmas, head home (or not!) in the freedom that comes from the promise of a better future home.
Image: "Steer at Home," by Henry Tonks. Taken from the blog "It's About Time."