Last night, after dinner, my wife received a call. It was my older half-cousin. I could hear, in the distance, that she was struggling to speak while holding back the tears - this beloved relative, who is not prone to wearing her heart on her sleeve, was attempting to convey her sense of distress at our planned imminent departure to the States.
I suppose this kind well-wishing was the culmination of nearly 30 years of a surprising outpouring of river of love which has cascaded down on our lives - prior to that we neither knew or heard anything of this dear relative, her husband, her daughter and future son-in-law, or the other kindly members of that side of our bloodline.
Their love, I suppose, has its source back in the day before "the War to end all wars" - it was a time when uncomfortable or unpalatable family truths were rarely aired. My Grandfather Kerr, who fought at the Somme, was widowed after the War and married a second time. The details are vague of how the problem arose - but either through harshness, cruelty, embarrassment or insensitivity, my late dad Kenneth and his elder half-brother Cecil, were to be separated permanently and brought up in different households. After insult was added to injury, the gap became a gulf. For over four decades, if my memory serves me correctly, drift morphed into a long forgotten and seemingly irreconcilable half-family rift.
The providence of God, of course, was to show its smiling face and sunny, sovereign, hand - one day, in the 1980s, I can recall my dad coming home, in a relieved but sorrowful mood - he was visibly and deeply affected by a visit he had paid to his half-brother Cecil who was dying of cancer in Lagan Valley Hospital. Happily "cousin" Cecil had taken the first step to reconcile the rift with Dad. My dad had broken down in tears at his bedside after discovering, for the first time, that he had another brother. Frostiness was quickly melted by affectionate warmth - the tragedy was that under other circumstances, these two kindred hearts might have remained closest, lifelong, and not just deathbed, friends.
Clearly, my dad was relieved to rediscover other long lost, well-loved family and friends, among whom he had been reared - he had long missed his "country cousins" with whom he had played, during the war years, while Belfast was under Blitzkrieg. Many fond and happy memories of fields and lanes roamed in the townland of Ballymacormick, near Dromore, County Down, until the Armistice, now came flooding back.
The next decades were spent catching up with relatives in England and Ireland as skeletons in the family closet were brought out and laid to rest - painful breaches were mended and all traces or hints of feuding were calmed as peace, love and joy slowly spread goodwill throughout the clan: for many in the family, with hurt and guilt gradually resolved, we knew, hand on heart, that God had worked for good.
At this point in the story, I want to mention my personal angle on this - my experience since then has been one of being swept away repeatedly by wave after wave of undeserved, unsought, and barely-reciprocated love. The kindness, warmth, concern, affection, respect, esteem with which I have been treated and in which I have been held, by dear members of my half-family, is as striking and overwhelming and it is hard to comprehend. No doubt, this was a reaching out both of and for affection, kinship and mutual solidarity and support. But I do believe, that more than anything else, what spawned this tide of love was really the bond of flesh and blood - an excessive, extravagant, love that I certainly neither sought not earned, from those who had been wounded by us.
This is a happy tale of how the Father of Heavenly Lights has granted fond familial love in this blighted, fallen, world of broken relationships - if it was motivated by family ties, it is only a faint impress of the hallmark stamp of Christ whose eternal, infinite, love, on which we had no claim, who came down from heights above to shared our frail weak flesh. Assuming flesh and blood, he suffered as a man, to save glory-bound foreloved sons.
Bethlehem was necessary to the Agony of the Gethsemane and Atonement of Golgotha - loved did come down, not just to repair family rifts, but to give us eternal life in which experience divine peace. Human experience is all about relationship - it is at the foot of the Cross, where were confess grave mistakes, that we receive the love of God, and love kin for Jesus' sake.
So at this festive season, as you sit around your hearth, may you experience the hope and healing, joy and peace, life and bliss of the Divine Love, Underserved and Unsought, of Blessed Father, Spirit and Son - Jesus the Kinsman Redeemer whose sympathy and sovereignty took and loved flesh and blood to death.