Christmas and the inversion of the family
The most accurate word to describe Christmas is “Nativity.” More than anything else, Christmas is about a birth, the birth of Christ. While this simple fact has occupied a comfortable place in the Christmas tradition, its revolutionary implications might remain hidden to many people. Nonetheless, Christmas has had a decisive revolutionary impact on the ordering of the members of the family.
Pater familias, “father of the family” or “owner of the family estate,” according to Roman law, gave the father autocratic authority over his family. In the family hierarchy, the father came first, the mother a distant second, and the child a far distant third. In contrast to pater familias, the Nativity was revolutionary in that it placed the child first, the mother a close second, and the father a comfortable third. The various images of the Madonna give the Christ- child a centrality, while Joseph is often absent. Mary nourishes, Joseph protects, but the Christ- child, who elicits these virtues, is the centerpiece. The Holy Family inverts the order of pater familias and gives the child a status of pre-eminence.
The Nativity is also a celebration of life, for a new life comes into the world amid widespread rejoicing. It truly brings joy to the world. The shepherds kneel in adoration of the Christ-child, virtually ignoring, though not disrespecting, the parents. Even the angels sing their praises to the newborn. It is not Mother’s Day nor Father’s Day that is celebrated, but the Nativity.
The Nativity affirmed the primary importance of the child. This notion had a deep impact on human history. King Lear, in a moment of uncontrollable rage, pronounces the greatest curse he can imagine on his daughter, Goneril: “Hear, Nature, hear, dear goddess, hear! Suspend thy purpose if thou didst intend to make this creature fruitful. Into her womb convey sterility. Dry up in her the organs of increase, and from her derogate body never spring a babe to honor her” (Act 1, Scene 4). Here, though stated in the negative, is a powerful testimonial to the importance of new life and how it brings joy and fulfillment to a woman. Love always has a forward motion. It does not hold back. It overcomes obstacles and reaches out to new life. Honoring and embracing the Christ-child is an acceptance of the mystery of love and the rewards it confers.
When we look at the contemporary world, we are witnessing a loss of that proper hierarchy of the family in which the child has pre-eminence. The abortion mentality accords the mother absolute dominion over her child, while the father holds, tenuously, to a distant second place. In many instances the child is downgraded into a subhuman. One example from a university textbook entitled Sociology more than illustrates the point. In referring to the neonate, the author writes: “The physical care, emotional response, and training provided by the family transform this noisy, wet, demanding bundle of matter into a functioning member of society.” King Lear retained enough mental clarity not to wish that his daughter would never deliver a “bundle of matter.”
The title of this brief essay employs the word “inversion.” This word is appropriate in relation to pater familias which had viewed the family upside down. A more precise term, however, is “conversion,” for the order of the Holy Family is a conversion from error to truth, from the unholy to the holy, and remains with us forever as the proper hierarchic model of all human families, perhaps more needed in our own time than ever before in human history.
DR. DONALD DEMARCO’S latest book is Apostles of the Culture of Life (TAN Books), and he has also released the recent title, Why I am Pro-Life and Not Politically Correct. He is a senior fellow of Human Life International, professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University (Waterloo, Ontario), adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College (Cromwell, CT), and regular columnist for St. Austin Review.