We tell two stories around Christmas. One is Christian, while the other is mostly sentimental.
The first story begins (at least in the Gospel of Luke) with an elderly priest named Zechariah serving faithfully at the temple. Luke tells us that Zechariah and Elizabeth, his wife, both loved the Lord and likely harbored some hope for Israel to be freed from Roman oppression. The angel Gabriel gives life to their hope by announcing that this barren couple would have a son who would herald the coming Messiah.
From there, the story moves to a young woman in Nazareth named Mary. The wonder of her pregnancy would surpass that of Elizabeth. Instead of being barren, Mary is a virgin. Instead of preparing the way for the king, her child would be the King himself, created within her womb by the power of the Spirit, God come to dwell among us.
We need not rehearse all that follows, save to say that shepherds and angels show up in abundance. The Lord of the universe enters the world through a virgin and spends his first night well loved in a humble manger. This is our Christmas story, rightly celebrated as the beginning of a new era in human history.
The other story that dominates the Christmas cards, songs, and movies we’ve come to love centers around a different kind of family. This is the all-American nuclear family, gathered around the tree in matching pajamas and exchanging presents as Nat King Cole croons in the background. Our image of family at Christmas—well-decorated, wealthy, happy, and intact—actually sits uneasily beside the gospel of the first.
I have no problem with churches that laud family togetherness during the holidays. Nonetheless, for children without a mother or a father, it can feel like a second Christmas story reserved for the elite. James Stewart, after much travail, may return to a family and community that loves him, but the rest of us may not get our It’s a Wonderful Life happy ending.
I think of my own upbringing without a father. Around the holidays, my mother came home haggard to deal with children eager for the energy that she spent at work to keep the creditors at bay.
As a boy, I was envious and curious about the kind of family Christmas we didn’t have. Were our festivities second-class because they did not resemble what I saw on television? As I looked to the church, I wondered which Christmas story we celebrated the most and which had room for the prayers of a child who had been abandoned.
Tucked away in a forgotten corner of Luke’s infancy narrative, an angel charts the way forward for all God’s children. Despite often going overlooked, this exchange between Gabriel and Zechariah proves staggering in its relevance. Speaking of John the Baptist, Gabriel says, “And he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared” (Luke 1:17, ESV).
According to Gabriel, John would prepare Israel for the Messiah by turning the hearts of fathers toward their children. The healed family, then, is a manifestation of the coming messianic age.
Gabriel’s words actually echo Old Testament prophecy. The idea that the last days would be marked by the reconciliation of fathers and children was a part of Malachi’s vision of eschatological renewal: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction” (Mal. 4:5–6, ESV).
Opinions vary over why Malachi highlights family reunions. The best interpretation seems to be that the prophet builds upon his earlier criticism of fathers in Malachi 2:10–16. There, he castigates the men of Israel for abandoning the wives of their youth. These divorces were a part of a larger pattern of unfaithfulness in Israel that included idolatry and flagrant disregard of God’s commands.
Let me be clear: Not every divorce is the result of a man’s callousness toward God, his wife, and his children. Life is more complicated than that. But when children are abandoned, that leaves its mark. Malachi claims that “Elijah” would undo that harm by calling the fathers to repentance. Luke, in turn, picks up on this same theme when he describes the coming work of John the Baptist. He would turn the hearts of fathers toward their children.
The reconciliation between parent and child during the holidays, then, has the ability to transcend mere sentimentality. It can be gospel work.
For someone who longed to have both parents at Christmas and other celebrations, Gabriel’s prophecy brought real comfort. It showed me that there was a place in the Christmas story for families like mine. The two Christmas stories (the incarnation of the Son and the joy of family togetherness) are not so far off after all.
It is interesting to note that neither Malachi nor Luke mention the full reunion of the husband and wife, even though the passages do envision some restored relationship between the father and his children. This broken but redeemed relationship, in its very messiness, testifies to the Messiah’s ability to put back together what sin has torn apart.
What are we to do now with Gabriel’s declaration that John the Baptist would turn the hearts of the fathers toward the children? First, in our preaching and teaching, Christians should recognize that Christmas, for some sons and daughters, reminds us of what we are missing. We must give space for the holidays to be hard while comforting families with an embodied gospel.
During the second Sunday of Advent, we remember the prophets, especially John the Baptist. This Sunday could be a time in which we can call upon parents to be reconciled to those they have wronged.
Still, not every story will have a tidy ending. My mother and father did not get back together. My father and I did not make amends until I had my own children and wife. We never shared that idealistic Christmas.
Still, I think that our reconciliation in the last years of his life had some of the gospel in it. It was a foretaste of the coming kingdom in which all our disappointments will be overcome.
Esau McCaulley is assistant professor of New Testament and early Christianity at Northeastern Seminary. He writes about New Testament scholarship, Anglicanism, and the black experience for The Living Church and his blog, Thicket of the Jordan.