Contemplating The Family Story
If you were a betting man (or woman), you’d probably agree that family stories are fairly memorable. So would I. Well, at least up until a couple weeks ago. It all started innocently enough. One of my sisters was taking a storytelling class. A recent assignment (beginning, you guessed it, a couple weeks ago) involved sharing one of those stories that must come up for a family gathering to actually be a family gathering. It was at this point that we discovered that some of our family stories haven’t been told as often as we thought. At least, they haven’t been told often enough for my sister to feel like she could track with them. It isn’t that they aren’t there, it’s just that in the hustle and bustle of life, we haven’t reminisced as often as we thought.1 It’s tempting to use this anecdote to jump off into sociological analysis, but I think it also points us to the importance of Advent in our lives. In order to understand this, though, a contrast will prove helpful.
If you’re a Hobbit, you love history, particularly family history. As Tolkien reminds us, “All Hobbits were, in any case, clannish and reckoned up their relationships with great care. . .The genealogical trees at the end of the Red Book of Westmarch are a small book in themselves, and all but Hobbits would find them exceedingly dull. Hobbits delighted in such things, if they were accurate: They liked to have books filled with things that they already knew, set out fair and square with no contradictions.”2 This takes family stories to a new level. It’s one thing to remember a couple of tales about life growing up, or from your parents’ and grandparents’ lives. Remembering a family genealogy is a different matter. Not impossible, but not exactly the way most people choose to spend their time. In this, Hobbits provide an excellent foil to our humanity. They delight in setting out and discussing their history where we, quite often, forget it.
The seeds of these thoughts bubbled up while listening to my pastor’s sermon a couple of weeks ago. Earlier this year, we began working through the book of Matthew. This, it turns out, has been an opportunity to indulge our inner Hobbits. As you might already know, Matthew opens with a genealogy. Rather than skimming and skipping our way through the first 17 verses of Matthew’s account, we’ve spent some significant time looking at who was part of Christ’s ancestry.3 This exercise benefits our congregation in two specific ways, outside of practical application and encouragement from hearing the Gospel. They are, simply put, the benefits of context and reflection.
Evangelical churches seem rather prone to forget or ignore that the Bible is a single book, rather than a patchwork collection of scraps of thought. Too often, we narrow our focus in on a single verse or book to the exclusion of the rest of the text. This is often coupled with a focus on “what [insert author name] has to say to us today.” Applying scripture to our lives is important. After all, it is the marching orders from our King. However, when we jump right to personalization before considering how a given text fits into the greater picture, we create opportunities for misinterpretation. One of the more common ways that we pass over context is assuming a separation between the Old and New Testaments. Spending time focused on Matthew’s opening genealogy provides at least a subtle reminder that the New Testament isn’t the beginning of the story. Its roots go back to the beginning of the Old Testament.
As a forgetful people, it’s not entirely surprising that we skip over the Old Testament roots of the New Testament. This highlights the importance of reflection in our lives. This idea is emphasized through the Old Testament. Consider the Psalmist’s use of reflection: “My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar” (Psalm 42:6).4 It is also worth noticing the times where Israel sets up reminders to help ensure that the history of God’s work is communicated to future generations.5 In addition to these instances, though, it is of interest that Israel had routines built into their celebrations to help them review how God worked in the past. Moses provides us an example. After telling Israel to place the blood of the Passover Lamb on their doorframes, Moses went on to say, “And when you come to the land that the Lord will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this service. And when your children say to you, ‘What do you mean by this service?’ you shall say, ‘It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s Passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he struck the Egyptians but spared our houses’ ” (Exodus 12:25-27).6
All of which brings us back to Advent. From my low church perspective, Advent serves as an opportunity to remember one of the important parts of the world’s story: Jesus’ incarnation. Granted, not all churches formally utilize the church calendar. Still, we all recognize that, at least culturally, this is the time of year where we celebrate Christ’s birth. Practically speaking, this recognition reaches to the extent of a head nod. Read a couple extra scripture passages, sing some special songs, and tack up a “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” sign or set up a nativity out front. None of these things are particularly wrong, but neither are they particularly helpful, at least not without the elements of context and reflection. As members of Christ’s body, this is one of the times during the year where we have extra reason to tell part of our family’s story. Rather than letting the hustle and bustle of the season catch up with us, I’d encourage you (and myself) to use this time to reflect on Christ’s work. In particular, this is also a time to contemplate how his incarnation provides context to our lives. After all, the story is greater than we are. Taking time to ponder it will provide both wonder at God’s amazing work, and gratefulness that we are a part of it.
What have you been reflecting on this Advent season?
What new insights or appreciation for Christ’s work have your reflections brought?