The Holiness of Dysfunction




by Justin Gibson

The Season of Christmas is truly a magical and holy time of year. In a world that seems so up and down and fickle, it is a great relief to enter into a time of year where generosity is encouraged and love and peace are inspired. This year has been one of those years when the fruit of Christmas was definitely needed. However, as much as we love Christmas, there is also another side to its festivities. Christmas is a season of anxiety and of distant relationships that press against what is comfortable and normal. Christmas is a time of year when all of our dysfunction tends to catch up with us and looks us right in the face.


One of my favorite holiday past-times is watching all of the classic Christmas movies on TV. I love to watch the antics of the Griswold’s as they navigate Christmas. My kids and I have our own favorite, ELF, which we tend to watch throughout the year. On the radio, we oscillate between Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Robert Earl Keen. The last of these crooners sings a holiday classic, “Merry Christmas from the Family,” which details a family who is as dysfunctional as any and yet, as you listen, you still find the holiness in the verses.


In one of the verses specifically, Robert Earl Keen sings about how a distant relative drives in from south Texas and blow all of the Christmas lights with their motor home. A handy cousin manages to get the lights turned back on and the family sings “Silent Night” on the front lawn. The song is certainly full of vulgarities, but when you hear it, especially if the connective tissue is strong, it makes you feel that the dual threat of beauty and dysfunction may keep good company.


This Christmas and Advent, we sifted through the Gospel of Luke and Matthew to call us back to the birth of Christ. We heard of the angel who came to the shepherds as well as to Mary and Joseph. We heard the praises that Mary sings and the cousin of Christ leaping in his womb, but there is more to this story as well. On the last Sunday of Advent, we listened as Joseph makes plans to divorce his wife secretly. We imagined what a surprise it would be to find out that your soon-to-be wife is pregnant and it isn’t your child. We felt the cold of the night when Joseph and Mary could not find room at the local hotel and have to camp out in the barn. We might have thought about how uncomfortable it must have been for all of those strange cowboys (shepherds) to come in from the country to swoon over the newborn baby.


The Christmas movie classics and the gospel stories of the birth of Christ are full of dysfunction and holiness. In fact, maybe the best Christmas stories, both in and out of scripture, are composed from holy dysfunction. Maybe it is the dysfunction that surprises us and allows us to make space for the holy to come in. Maybe it is the in-laws and strangers who invade our space that make family gatherings truly memorable. If you are like me, you like raucous holiday classics because you find yourself in the script and in the scenes. For the remainder of what is still left of this Christmas season, I say to you and your families: “Don’t hide from the discomfort, dysfunction, and disappointment. Let it come into your midst as the newborn babe of the night; with surprise and reverence. The holiness of God might just be cloaked in the dysfunction of real life.”

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Ann Fontaine
Ann Fontaine

Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson.

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