In these weeks leading up to December 25, our ears ring with the same worn-out words: presents and trees; decorations and Santa; and, of course, Visa and Amazon Prime. They’re all part of our common cultural vocabulary. We know the definitions and connotations. There’s no need to unwrap them.
She was the kind of woman whose biography needed few exclamation points. Invisibility was her most striking feature. Few recalled her, and none remembered any story in which she was either villain or heroine. She was the very incarnation of average.
Snowmen hung like overweight acrobats from the light poles lining Main Street as the hearse crunched over the snowy pavement. Jingle bells, sirens yell, tears cascade like rain. All they wanted for Christmas was him back. Before he left his friend’s house. Before the curve of the bridge. Before he fell asleep at the wheel.
We tend to assume that big problems require equally big solutions. You don't send a child to do a man's job. That would be foolish.If anybody should realize this, God should. It’s not like he needs a remedial course in being a divinity. He’s had all eternity to figure this stuff out. Nothing is his first rodeo.
In the Bible-belted, tiny Texas town where I grew up, the virgin Mary had her annual fifteen minutes of fame. You had your shepherds, your angels, and your young maiden kneeling beside the swaddled babe.
I'm still searching for a Christmas card with a red dragon in the nativity, lurking amidst the cows and lambs, waiting to devour the baby in the manger.
Christmas is the season of singing. The angels sang at our Lord's birth. Mary sang when the Lord was in her womb. The church cannot stop singing of the joy of the Incarnation. Here is another hymn to add to the long list of poetry focused on Emmanuel.
The choir of angels can’t be credited with the first Christmas hymn. Nor was it a lullaby the virgin cooed to her swaddled infant. You have to go much father back.
The Christmas pageant in the Episcopal church was a carbon copy of similar pageants around the country. Only in this one, in this year, at a critical moment, a little nine-year-old girl said something that the people would never forget.
When I taught in Siberia several years ago, I returned home with a box full of Russian dolls to give as Christmas presents. These famous nesting dolls come in various sizes and colors; they depict everyone from politicians to biblical figures. My favorite was the Virgin Mary. Inside her was another smaller Mary, and inside her another, and still many more. I liked the combination of elaborate colors on this particular doll, but even more I liked the symbolism inherent in the nesting design.
In my family room is a tree that whispers to me a secret story about Christmas. It is arrayed with colorful lights, festooned with shiny ornaments. But no matter how bright and beautiful we decorate it, the tree whispers to me its darker, secret story.
In the Bible-belt town where I grew up, the virgin Mary had her annual fifteen minutes of fame when December rolled around. You had your shepherds, your angels, and your young maiden kneeling beside the swaddled babe. But after the presents were unwrapped and the nativity brouhaha had quieted down, Mary drifted back into the shadows.
Kent and I slept through the same sermons every Sunday at the First Baptist Church in Shamrock, Texas. Our butts bruised their way down many a ski slope together. We hunted turkeys by day and raccoons by night. And we bragged about how many girls we'd kissed (though I'm pretty sure we both grossly inflated the numbers). His older brother dated my older sister, and, especially in middle school, we both greatly delighted in being as obnoxious as possible when we were around them. Kent was a little guy but a force to reckoned with on the football field or basketball court. He was smart, likable, an overall good kid and great friend. I was unloading a truck at the feed store in town when my mom pulled up one day in late December to tell me that, on his birthday, Kent had put a gun to his head and pulled shut the door to life. Were I to outlive Methuselah, it would still seem like yesterday. It’s one of those moments welded into my memory. Shock and fear and anger and guilt and emotions I didn’t even know were in me—they all came cascading out. A few days later, I, but a teenager, helped bear his teenage casket out of the church, into a world that blinked at us with a potpourri of festive lights that seemed a blasphemy of joy in the vortex of our grief.
Almost a decade later, the parsonage phone rang way too early one Saturday morning. I knew the instant Dale began to speak that whatever he said next would be wounded words. A police officer had knocked on the door of the family's country home earlier that morning. Dale and Roxie's twenty year old son had fallen asleep at the wheel, hit a guardrail, and been thrown from his pickup. Snow and ice blanketed the town on the day we laid Dewayne’s body to rest. It was December 26. And the day before, as I and my fellow mourners at St. Paul Lutheran church pretended to celebrate our Lord’s Nativity, every happy hymn, every joyful carol, was dragged from our lips like a dirge, and the sanctuary liquefied into one vast sea of tears.
I think, for most people, Christmas is the best of times and the worst of times. When I was a boy, I was unacquainted with the cruel nonchalance with which evil disregards the festival calendar. I knew nothing of tear-laden birthday parties and pill-popping Christmases. I sat on Santa’s lap and told him what I wanted under the tree. My family was all together on that happy morning. We all had colorful wrapping paper strewn about our feet when it was all over, new toys to play with, a feast to consume. Christmas was the best of times. And for those sweet boyhood memories, I am everlastingly grateful.
But I know now the darker side of Christmas, the gloom beneath the glitter, a side many of you reading this know all too well. Every December I think of the family of Kent, and the family of Dewayne, and the what-might-have-been memories that must rise to the surface every time the tree goes up and carols flood the airwaves. And though the grief is of a different kind, I think of all the families of broken marriages, of which mine is a part. The Hallmark scene of eager children waking their mom and dad early on Christmas morning to open the gifts isn’t possible when dad is living hours away, and mom’s newest boyfriend doesn’t appreciate some kid jumping in bed with them, especially when he’s nursing a hangover.
Perhaps part of the mistake we’ve made is in forgetting that the first Christmas, the actual birthday of Jesus, started out as the worst of times. Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem because of taxes, because the money-hungry, tyrannical Roman overlords had forced them to undertake this journey when no pregnant woman should be on the road. No warm, sanitized room awaited them after their trip, but a cold, dark barn. When this young mother went into labor, where was she supposed to lay down to give birth? On rough hay littered with cow crap? Where’d they get light? Warm water? Cloths to clean up the blood? It’s a wonder both mother and child didn’t die that night. The original crèche must have looked like a rural crime scene. This is not the way any baby, least of all Jesus, should have been born.
And yet it was. Far from home, in the dark, in the cold, in the mess, in the blood, in the shit of this world, God was born.
That’s a Christmas story I like, for it’s one I can identify with. More than that, it’s a story that gives meaning and hope to our own dark, cold, bloody, shitty stories of Christmases that seem anything but joyful. For it was on this night that God began to teach us that we don’t need to have a Hallmark Christmas to find peace and contentment and joy in him.
For Christmas is not about presents. It’s not even about family and friends. It’s about God taking on our flesh and blood, being born as one of us, to share our griefs, to bear our sorrows, and to unite us to himself, that we might find in our griefs and sorrows him. There’s a reason he’s called a “man of sorrows, well acquainted with grief.” The first sound leaving our newborn Lord’s lips would have been a cry. How fitting is that? God knows what it means to weep, to hurt, to suffer loneliness, anger, loss, and, yes, even the pangs of death. You do not have a Savior unable to sympathize with your weaknesses, but one who has experienced them all, so that no matter what your own hurt, he redeems it, and carries you through it.
All I want for Christmas is a God like that.
If you’d like to read more of my writings, please check out the two books that I now have on sale. From now to the end of 2014, Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons and The Infant Priest: Hymns and Poems, are on sale for an additional 25% off through CreateSpace. Click here if you’d like to purchase Christ Alone or herefor The Infant Priest. When you check out, enter this code, YLECQSWE, for the discount. Thank you!