Related – December 23, 2018
O Holy Child of Bethlehem,
descend to us, we pray;
cast out our sin and enter in,
be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
our Lord, Emmanuel!
It’s a scene we don’t see too often: all of the living presidents and their spouses sitting together in one place. But it’s a scene we did see two and a half weeks ago, for the first time in years, when the nation gathered to celebrate the life of former President George H. W. Bush in Washington. Plenty about the event was worthy of attention and reflection: the long life and legacy of a public servant, now departed; the trajectory our nation has taken over the past few decades; what shade was thrown where and who snubbed whom. However, as I watched the funeral, and contemplated the remarkable composition of the people gathered there, I kept dwelling on one particular characteristic of the congregation that I happened to notice: all of the people seated in the cathedral’s first row, each of whom played key roles in the leadership of our country and yet each of whom represented disparate elements of our historical narrative and our political landscape, were inextricably interconnected with one another; they were all related.
The deceased man was, of course, eulogized by his eldest son, a man with whom he shared not only blood ties but also a first name, a last name, and one of his middle names, a man who later became President himself. But also present at the funeral was the President who followed the one being remembered, the victor who prevailed against him after a bitter fight and yet in time became friends with him, raising money for victims of natural disasters both at home and abroad. That President’s wife, who herself ran for President twice, was also there. In her first race, she lost the Democratic nomination to the man who now sat three seats away from her, though after his election she became his confidant and his Secretary of State. In the second race, she lost a vitriolic general election to the current President, now five seats away from her, whose marriage to his current wife, now four seats away from her, she had attended with her President husband several years before. Across the aisle sat the younger son of the late President, the brother of the late President’s President son, who was himself defeated by the current President in a fight for the Republican nomination. In the second row, the current President’s daughter, now one of his senior advisers, had been placed right next to a former President’s daughter, with whom, while they were young socialities in Manhattan, she had once been close but to whom she had no longer been speaking.
I doubt I need to go on. You get the point. This crew of illustrious figures, whose impact has been wide-reaching, whose names all of us would recognize, about whom exist a multitude of opinions, both positive and negative, is an awfully incestuous one. The people who hold power, the people to whom the media directs its gaze, the people who, for good or ill, change the world have a common history. They all know each other. They are each other’s spouses, siblings and children. They go to each other’s weddings. They are each other’s family. They are each other’s friends.
A valid critique of this reality laments the fact that power over so much is restricted to such an elite few, that important positions of influence aren’t accessible to the average person, to the rest of us. We supposedly live in a democracy, but at times it feels more like we live in an aristocracy. One might contend that while these folks put on a good show of tussling with each other for the cameras, they seem to have much more in common with themselves than with the people they purport to represent. There is truth in this argument, to be sure, but I wonder if the interconnectedness of our politicians and their spouses might be interpreted in a slightly more positive fashion, if it might say something about how all of us—politician or not, famous or not—are related.
I recently learned, in fact, that I am more closely connected to the men who sat in the front row at the funeral than I ever previously believed. Over the past few months, my sister has been undertaking an extensive genealogical investigation of our family and she has discovered, among other things, that she and I are eighth cousins once removed of Barack Obama, the forty fourth President of the United States, and fourth cousins twice removed of Jimmy Carter, the thirty ninth President of the United States. Such distant connections hardly make us immediate family, but they do suggest that my sister and I are related in some way to two famous, important men, that we share some nugget of history in common with them, that we are not entirely different. You might need to go further afield than my sister, but I suspect that if many of you looked for genealogical connections to a former President or another very powerful and important person, you would find them as well. When it comes to family ties, regular people aren’t as removed from the elite as the elite might want us to think. The Presidents and first ladies and their children and siblings are not Olympian gods squabbling it out through family disputes way up in heaven, far away; they are people who live on earth, just like you and me, who have many of the same ancestors and much of the same genetic code, whose families and pasts are intertwined with yours and with mine, and whose futures must be too.
Each year at Advent we tell the story of John the Baptist and remind ourselves of his role in preparing the way for Jesus. But because Jesus and John the Baptist never acknowledge it themselves, it can be easy for us to overlook the fact that, according to Luke, John the Baptist and Jesus were related, or at least that their mothers were. When Mary and Elizabeth greet each other in today’s Gospel reading, each woman is greeting her cousin, a woman whom she had met before, a woman with whom she shares a common ancestor, a woman whose companionship she had previously enjoyed, a woman who is changing the world through the new life she is bringing into it. Mary and Elizabeth seem otherwise fairly unremarkable—typical women simply going about their daily lives. And yet God, through Mary and Elizabeth, lifts up the lowly, as Mary herself declares. Elizabeth and Mary become essential players in a drama that alters the course of human history—players who will be remembered and lauded for their roles for years to come. “Blessed are you among women,” Elizabeth tells Mary. “From now on all generations will call me blessed,” Mary responds. And certainly Elizabeth is quite blessed herself.
Still, Elizabeth and Mary are no stand-alone standouts. They are essential players in a drama that alters the course of human history, but that drama has a longer arc that far predates and far outlasts them. The Christmas story is full of reminders that Elizabeth and Mary, as well as their progeny, John the Baptist and Jesus, are members of a much larger family and characters in a much lengthier story. The location of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, the city of David, emphasizes his earthly father Joseph’s ancestral links to the famous king. In her song of praise, Mary mentions the promise God made to her ancestors, to Abraham, the great patriarch, and his descendants for ever. The Christmas story as a whole makes clear that Mary and Elizabeth are not just related to each other; they are related to a whole lineage of esteemed leaders who precede and indeed follow them.
But why is it necessary for us to know that these two women who facilitated the revelation of God in Jesus are cousins, that they are related to each other and to an entire distinguished family tree? Perhaps God is trying to tell us that the people we love are capable of significant things, that we should never underestimate the worth and potential of the people we are close to. And perhaps, in so frequently alluding to family in the scriptural accounts of the events leading up to Christmas, God is also trying to show us that in the miracle of Christmas, in the miracle of God’s own family member becoming one of us, we—all of us—become part of God’s family too, more holy than we ever thought possible, more related to one another than we ever dreamed.