Going home for Christmas? The question falls from our lips so easily this time of year. Cheerily, we say to friend and stranger, “Are you going home for Christmas?” We think …

Oh, there’s no place like home for the holidays

‘Cause no matter how far away you roam

When you pine for the sunshine of a friendly gaze

For the holidays you can’t beat home, sweet home.

Whenever I think of home, I summon up a place – specifically a house, the outer buildings of the farm and fields where I grew up. There is an orchard, a nearby creek where I used to swim, and the mingled sounds of country and farm. Here I worked and cared for animals, mastered the use of farming equipment and enjoyed the kind of privacy that can only belong to a child whose mind is often his best companion. I was the elder brother of two in a household of four. This family helped to give me the face I wear today. Were I to live my life over, I would again choose this family … as I wish to be just as I am.

I find it difficult to write of how it was in my childhood home. Not wholly appreciating my parents’ history and the unconscious influences permeating any family’s life, I would be telling a lie before I had written two sentences. As with every family, I suppose we experienced both joy and hurt, discontents and satisfactions. Theologian Frederick Buechner somewhere wrote that each family furnishes its home with themselves. And therein lies the problem. We perhaps do the best we know. Yet, we’re not necessarily wise respecting everything we are; consequently, offering the best that we know cannot shield us from furnishing our homes with the disparate pieces of the untidy persons that we have come to be. So much depends upon us – what we have been, who we are and who we wish to be.

I’m not Pollyanna-ish regarding family life en masse. Families fail and fail us. The fact that we furnish our homes with ourselves can be a recipe for disaster, though for the most part it usually is a jumbling of the imperfect with the perfect. It was this jumbling that characterized my family’s home: never always “sweet home,” but memory has made “home sweet.” And that poses the question: Why is it that for me, home has become through memory’s transformation and amendment a place where all hurt has vanished in a great forgetting and possibly even a grave forgiving?

Though my remembrances of home are uncommonly rich, they are enormously complex – as may be true for any of us. There is in me a relentless stumping among vignettes of our family’s life, sorting and underscoring the love and good that was always there. I trust an intrinsic something in me (I say!) at the level of my genes that overrules, conceivably transforming both the joys and the hurts of that former time. In the last I have come to believe that I was in the place of God’s own choosing – that God had elected to use both the gray and golden threads of our family’s life in creating the tapestry of my being.

I suppose what I wanted and what anyone desires from home and family is that it be a place where we are acknowledged, not treated as strangers. There we are loved and given space to practice loving while discovering those unique gifts which are ours alone. Home is actuality here, but in the deep region of our beings our sense of home has become a metaphor for an eternal somewhere in this fabulous universe where our names are known and where we are expected. We want, as C. S. Lewis wrote so wonderfully, “to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside,” knowing that to be summoned inside would be both glory and home.

Dr. George Buttrick was Harvard’s minister while I was attending seminary in Boston. Time and again, I would visit Memorial Church to worship and hear him preach, so often that privately, in my heart, he became my “ministerial mentor.” Books he had written I bought. Once I was a participant in a retreat where he was the chief presenter. He is long gone; still, through the years I have prayed that something of his spirit might fall upon me. Of him I have the following story, also the source of my question, “Are you going home for Christmas?”

It is reported that once, toward the middle of December, as Dr. Buttrick was leaving the church for home, he overheard someone out on the steps asking of another, “Are you going home for Christmas?” As it was yet Advent, the following week he posed the question in a sermon. With his glasses glittering in the lectern light as he peered out at all those people listening to him in a large dim sanctuary, he asked again, “Are you going home for Christmas?” and asked it in a way that made it almost unnecessary for him to move on to his answer to the question, which was that home, finally, is the Manger in Bethlehem, “the place where at midnight even the oxen kneel.”

The Rev. Merle G. Steva is Minister of Visitation Emeritus of First Parish Church, Saco. He may be contacted at [email protected]