Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Some Thoughts at Christmas

Don't take this wrong, but Christmas is not my favorite event on the Christian or secular calendar. It is not that I don't love Jesus. It is not that I don't get overwhelmed with the love of my God who came to us in the form of a baby. The incarnation is a defining doctrine of our Christian faith and it is a key characteristic in my own understanding of God. My own internal image of God is centered around God's grace and I see that grace so clearly in the coming of God in flesh.

But... Christmas is difficult. Christmas is difficult for me practically and, (and you might not like this part) I think Christmas is supposed to be a lot harder for all of us than we like to think. Here is the practical side for me. Perhaps you have some similar experiences. Christmas has not always been cookies and candy canes for all of us. I have been a practicing Christian for about 11 years. So, there were a number of years that I didn't have the focal point of the Church's celebration of Christmas in my life. So, a number of Christmases, especially the ones between leaving home and my conversion, were pretty crummy. For non-Christians, especially living in the Northeast, Christmas means dark, cold, bad traffic, bad office parties, bad tempers, end of the year paperwork, and working countless extra shifts so everyone else can take time off. If you happen to be single and away from family the whole thing seems even worse. Coming home at midnight Christmas Eve after working a seemingly endless shift only to wake up six hours later to go back to work feels especially meaningless even for those who don't understand the meaning of Christmas.

So, I guess I naively expected things to be totally different on becoming a Christian. They were in some ways. First of all, when I found Christ, I lived in Austin instead of Allentown, PA so it wasn't as cold. And I had a new job that gave me lots of time off at Christmas. And, I happened to again live around family. The main thing, however, was the focus on worship and remembering the story. But, Christmas was still difficult. Oddly, despite the coming of the Christ child, people still get sick, lives still get upended, people still die and sometimes we spend Christmas time in hospitals, nursing homes, empty apartments, or right in our own living rooms but with no energy to even plug in the tree.

Becoming a pastor opened my eyes even more to the struggles many face at Christmas. As my extended family has grown to include the churches I serve, I have been invited into the holy space of people's lives and become more and more aware that pain doesn't take a vacation at the end of December.

It took me a long time to figure it out, but moments like those aren't counter to the Christmas message, they are not exceptions to the idea of Christmas. They are part of the very essence of Christmas. They are examples of the very doctrine of incarnation.

I got to fill in for Pastor Adam last week teaching his annual Advent class, Meeting Jesus in the Christmas Story. We were studying Luke so I had them read aloud all of Luke 1 and 2. We split is up in sections so it got read in different translations and different voices. People were pretty amazed at the experience. The common reaction was that there was a whole lot of stuff in there that they had forgotten about. That seems pretty common. At Christmas we tend to share the tidings of great joy but leave out the context in which that joy came.

Christmas is difficult. Christmas is difficult because God came into the world, the real one. God, in Jesus, was born into this same world we live in: a world of great beauty and wonder and love and joy but also a world of great struggle and brokenness and pain.

Visit the gospel accounts again through that lens. Think of the tension faced by Mary and Joseph. When angels visit Joseph (Matt 1:20) and Mary (Luke 1:30) among their first words are "do not be afraid." They say that because what they are about to go through is going to be difficult. In Matthew's gospel, the birth of Jesus is followed by an escape to Egypt and a massacre of innocent children. In Luke's gospel, the difficult and trying nature of the life of that little baby born into our world is brought into focus by some enlightening words of Mary (Luke 1:46-55) and some troubling words by Simeon. It is Simeon who speaks those haunting words to Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too." (Luke 2:34-35)

I think that Christmas can get so lost in sentimentality that we can miss the most important part. Sometimes I think it feels like we try to put pain and reality on hold to celebrate Christmas. But I think perhaps Christmas is to be celebrated right in the thick of pain and reality. Christmas is supposed to be difficult.

But it is also the message of Christmas that there is joy in the midst of this pain. It isn't that pain goes away (not yet anyway), it isn't that we are called to ignore it for the sake of polite Christmas celebration. The message is that, into this messy world, God sent his Son, who experienced this, spoke to it and overcame it.

I am in a new season of my life now. There is much more joy to experience. I have a wonderful family to share my Christmas with. I get to be part of leading our celebration of Christmas in the church. But there is still this one blessing of uncertainty and reality in the life of my family. I have written before of our life as a foster family. (Read Heartbreak and Discipleship) Well we have another little one in our home just in time for Christmas. And with her comes the same outrageous joy and extreme uncertainty. And when I start to dwell too long on how it all makes me feel, I think of her world. A baby born into uncertain circumstances. A child born into a world of court dates and home visits. An innocent life who has a lawyer and case worker before a first Christmas and birthday. I look at her and realize it is for such as her that God came among us. I look at her and think, "So this is Christmas!"

I wish you a very Merry Christmas. I pray that God's coming into the world will have new a fresh meaning in your life and that, in the midst of any pain or sorrow you might face, you might experience the joy of God's overwhelming love for you.
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