12/06/2011 01:30 pm ET Updated Feb 05, 2012

Was Jesus Born into a Broken Family? A Reflection for Advent

If you pay any attention to ads this time of year, you might think the holidays are made exclusively for satisfied husbands and doting wives, children who always try their best in school and always come home at the end of the day, and families that are healthy, wealthy and happy. The ideals of the traditional family are felt most of all at Christmastime -- and perhaps most of all by those of us who don't entirely fit the picture.

My friend, Dave, feels alienated and alone this time of year. He is single, and just the word, single, he thinks, sounds incomplete. The company party is rough. All of the other managers are married, or at least coupled, and he feels at odds especially when they go out of their way to make him feel included. Dave also has to figure out what he'll do or where he'll go on Thanksgiving and Christmas days -- something that many a married person hasn't had to consider for years.

Can it be that the story of Advent and Christmas holds less meaning for the single, separated, and divorced? I don't think so -- not if we look at the facts. What would it mean if the holy family -- the way that Christian tradition refers to Mary, Joseph, and Jesus -- represented something quite different from today's ideal family? Let's take the biblical characters out of the crèche and imagine the real circumstances of their lives. What if they were actually examples of what we might call today a non-traditional, or even, broken, family? The truth is, today's single-parent, multi-generational, dysfunctional, non-traditional families are as much a mirror of the family of Jesus as are homes with a Norman Rockwell or Frank Capra husband and wife with two-and-a-half kids.

Look at what we know from the account in the Gospel of Luke: Mary was pregnant and unwed; the father of her child was not the man to whom she was betrothed; and Joseph's role is blurry at best. Joseph does not even appear to be the holy child's father until together with Mary they are heading from Nazareth to Bethlehem, Joseph's hometown, for the census. Even then the text is unclear on Joseph's role: "He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son." (Luke 2:5-7; NRSV) Her child. Her firstborn son. Mary sounds a lot like what we would call a single mom. And Joseph sounds like a man who has yet to adopt his wife's child. Only when bringing Jesus up to the Temple does the text for the first time use a plural pronoun, "they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord." (Luke 2:22)

Mary, it seems, was much stronger and more independent than the crèche figures ever communicate. After the flight from Herod into Egypt, Joseph makes no appearances in Matthew's gospel. There's no mention of him at all in either Mark or John. And in Luke, the last mentions of Joseph come when Jesus was twelve years old and staying behind in Jerusalem to talk with the teachers, and then a brief mention when Jesus' ancestry is chronicled after his baptism. It appears to be Mary, and only Mary, who tutored the boy Jesus, raised him, and then later, watched him die with the courage of a woman at her son's execution.

So when you look at the crèche this year, try considering that the holy family was not ideal. None of our families are.