Carol Shields ends her recent novel, Larry’s Party, with a scene depicting a dinner party. Larry, the bungling hero of her story, has invited a motley group of persons to join him for a Saturday night dinner party.

The guests include his two ex-wives, his present girlfriend and an array of disparate individuals, each equipped to illustrate all the sins and bunglings in the world.

The party goes as go all dinner parties. There is banter, jealousy and every kind of argument about politics, religion and life. Old wounds raise their ugly heads and new wounds are created even as the evening progresses.

People are reminded in subtle ways of their past stupidities and infidelities, even as these are being washed clean by the celebration taking place. Food and wine get passed around and, underneath it all, despite everything that has been wrong and still is wrong, there is a deep joy present. Un-holy as this all looks, a little messianic banquet is taking place. Some redemption is happening.

Most of our family gatherings pretty much mimic this. Thus, for instance, take your typical family Christmas dinner:

The family is home for Christmas, but the long-anticipated celebration ends up depressingly similar to last year’s fiasco. Your spouse is in a sulk, you’re fighting tiredness and anger, your 17-year-old is pathologically restless and doesn’t want to be there, and your aging mother is phoning every half-hour. You’re not sure how you are going to handle this.

Your Uncle Charlie, who’s not invited but has decided to drop around anyway since he has no other place to go, is batty as an owl. You need to keep your eye on him in case he wanders off to some bedroom by himself. Your 30-year-old unemployed son has spent most of the day sitting in the bathroom with the Reader’s Digest, but you are beyond irritation on that one. Everyone, it seems, is either too lazy or selfish to help you prepare the dinner and you don’t even want to think about who’s going to clean up after.

You had looked forward to this (at least you think you had) but the reality of your family – which you’d been able to idealize somewhat in the months that you’d been apart – brings you back down to earth with a thud.

Yours is not the holy family, nor a Hallmark card for that matter. It has enough pathologies to provide its own study for abnormal psychology and its Achilles heel lies exposed not far below the surface. Twenty minutes after the initial hellos and all the old patterns and wounds re-emerge. There is no soul-sharing taking place, only superficial exchange, arguments mostly, about sports, politics, movies and popular trends.

So you set an extra place for Uncle Charlie (he’s not going to go away), your son must be finished with the Reader’s Digest because he finally comes out of the bathroom, everyone is at the table (save your 17-year-old who is on the phone) and your dinner is set.

The grace is rote, rushed and stupid. Your spouse shouts: “Thank you God for being born – Let’s eat!” and there is a chorus of laughter.

And so you celebrate Christmas, somewhat irritated and disappointed. Yet, underneath this all, there is a deep joy present. A this-side-of-eternity version of the messianic banquet is taking place and your very real family is meeting around Jesus’ birth.

That is what church and our Eucharistic gatherings, in this world, perennially look like – Larry’s Party at its best, your family dinner at its worst. Your parish community will never be confused with the holy family, nor with that idyllic first Christian community as described in the Acts of the Apostles.

We meet around the word of God and the Eucharist, but our communities have more than their share of Uncle Charlies, bored adolescents, unemployed 30-year-olds who are reading the parish bulletin during the celebration, and others whose spiritual interest and depth stops at “Thank you God, let’s eat!” And it has each of us – who are an Uncle Charlie, a restless adolescent, a bathroom hogger and spiritual clod all tied up in one.

And so, as we meet, there is jealousy and boredom and we are reminded of our stupidities and sins, even as we sneak an occasional glance at our watches to see how much of the life we can still catch, after missing so much by coming this Sunday morning. And all the while, underneath it all, redemption is happening. Our wounds and sins are being washed clean by so gathering and, at one level inside us, we know the pure joy of it.

Church is funny. Most of the time, it is so frustrating that we do not see the joy that is, in fact, underneath.

In the end, we go to church for the same reason that we continue to have Christmas dinners together – for the pure joy of it!