“I Wasn’t Home for Christmas”: Reconciling Family and the Kingdom

The suggestion that we should hate our families seems repellent, like smelling food you intuitively know has passed. Even in my most wrathful moments of adolescence, in the midst of injustice at the hands of the oppressive regime of Mom and Dad, I would never, truly, hate my parents. I came closer with my twin brothers, but since I exercised power as the oldest, I showed mercy and still rarely would engage hatred.

But can Jesus be clearer? “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple.” I’ve never been able to find a way around this passage. And hating my own life…forget it!

I have taught the gospels to adolescent girls for four years. This is one of those passages that I cunningly sidestep; I’m afraid it will turn the girls off Jesus. I would wimp out and opt for the let’s-not-take-Jesus-too-literally getaway car:

Student: “So, does Jesus really want us to hate our parents?”

Me: “Well, maybe not hate…

But it says hate. The Greek verb is μισέω, (miseo), to hate or detest, from the noun μῖσος, (misos) which means hatred. It’s hard to make a case for a softer translation. Some biblical concordances suggest that in application it can mean to love less, relative to something else. It’s still a challenge, though: “Love me more than your family or turn around and go home.”

From so many directions we receive the message that “family is everything.” Family values. Family first. And at Thanksgiving: “I’m most thankful for my family…” It’s perhaps the least offensive thing one can possibly utter. And yet, Jesus limits it. No, family is not everything; family is not first. Perhaps I can justify this in the abstract—if God is first, then everything of this world must be subservient to that priority. “A saint is a person whose life is about one thing.” Sure. But to live that way… I’ve never had the courage.

Then I moved overseas after spending my entire life in New England, never more than two hours from family members. It’s been neither traumatic, nor lonely. I’m busy and happy; with the multitude of channels for constant contact, I haven’t had a chance to miss anyone.

But Christmas is where the landscapes of our families come into focus, with greater contrast and complexity that we otherwise get away with ignoring. My family never felt so simultaneously itself and not itself as when my father missed Christmas while with the Army in Afghanistan, and again two years later when my little brother was there with the Marines. Mom had a life-sized cardboard cut-out of Dad which she would tote around for photos, making our terrier bark and everyone else feel even more depressed. In retrospect, my brother said that Christmas in Tarinkot was so bleak that it was better for troops to pretend like it was a normal day; calling home was the most painful duty. After these years, I clung to the traditional, united family holidays as a limited resource: you never know when someone will be gone.

When the time came for me to decide that I would not leave the UK to spend Christmas at home, I felt sad and guilty, as if I were forcing them to relive past Christmases of separation due to war. Still, I wasn’t about to pay over $1,000 to lessen these feelings.

I soon realized that my decision to bow out of family Christmas is not comparable to military service (which seems obvious in retrospect, but my emotions at the time were muddled), but rather the natural, inevitable separation of the young adult child from the brood, a process that I am undergoing alongside my millennial peers. As we marry, have children, move away, and take on demanding careers, our perspective on the family is shifting from that of child to adult. Together, we are experiencing the years when we are making these decisions, hopefully out of freedom and not fear.

For the first time, I had the freedom to make my Advent and Christmas whatever I wished it to be. The reigns of family tradition are suspended. No family parties, no work gatherings, and no gifts. I had no excuse not to take up the offer at my parish to volunteer at a homeless shelter on Christmas Day. I had no excuse to decline. Answer the call.

I started to see the detachment, for the first time, as a good thing: an opportunity to be better. It was instantiated by the decision to spend Christmas and New Year’s cooking for the homeless, but the reverberations of that small gesture were significant. Jesus wants us to be free; yes, even from our families.

Given the reflection I was devoting to this Advent and Christmas, I entered the volunteer experience with above-average anticipation. I overdramatized my self-importance: maybe I’ll show someone the kind love of God’s own hand! It’s all up to me! Fortunately for everyone involved, the humble volunteers of the coalition of churches were the opposite of me: show up, cook a nice meal, show people respect, chit chat, and go home. My prevailing feeling the whole time: this is quite easy. It’s not a sacrifice at all; it deserves no credit. Just do your job and give humans the dignity they deserve in the first place. Why had I not volunteered before? What was holding me back from simply saying yes?

Lots of things were, lots of attachments. Family is one of them. Human relationships are complicated; families are complicated. Yes, there is true, deep love that few other things can match. And yes, one of the reasons why the homeless are even there to serve is because a family isn’t there for them. But families are also caught in the web of our myriad social trappings and expectations. They can, and do, hinder us from our freedom. And isn’t that what Jesus is about? Radical freedom. He came into this world with Mary’s yes; he didn’t even need a real house, just a bit of hay where he could be born. The magi dropped what they were doing and just answered the call. Ultimately, we are all this free to respond. At every moment, I am free. As Sartre writes in The Age of Reason, we are “free, free in every way, free to behave like a fool or a machine, free to accept, free to refuse, free to equivocate; to marry, to give up the game, to drag this death weight about with him for years to come.”

At the end of all of this, am I willing to hate my parents? Not quite. But I now recognize the danger. My family is not a means of escaping the call to build the Kingdom of God. I cannot hide behind my family in the name of loyalty and justify a life that I am not called to live. Ultimately, I am free. The irony is that I don’t feel resentment toward my family; I don’t love them any less. But it’s a love freely chosen, not bound by guilt and obligation. It may be painful at times, but ultimately it is my responsibility to live as I ought. Jesus doesn’t say it will be easy (it’s a cross, after all), but we have to do it.

Rebecca Krier is an educator; she is currently enrolled at the University of Cambridge pursuing a research degree in Educational Leadership and School Improvement for 2015-2016.