I love Christmas. Deeply. In prior years I’ve opened my sunroof — on the highway — during the first snow of the season to get the full, magical effect. Pre-marriage I banned from my hearing all non-Christmas music for the month of December (this doesn’t fly so much with my husband). And I overspend on Christmas gifts — as a rule. The Christmas anticipation starts, for me, in mid-August. It makes me giddy and childlike and joyful in a manner reserved only for Christmas.
I still love Christmas. Deeply. But I’ve come to learn — three Christmases in a row now — that Christmas can really, really hurt. I say with no small embarrassment that before 2018 I never truly understood how the holidays could be a difficult time for some people. My word, what a privilege to be so ignorant! How little my life was touched by sorrow to have such a perspective! But these last years… Christmas has changed.
Or perhaps it’s me who has changed (nod to Cindy Lou Who circa 2000).
Christmas is the embodiment of peace, joy, generosity, kindness, family, hope, and love. Or, at least, it is when you already have those things. When you don’t, Christmas is a lemony reminder of that fact. Christmas shines a holly-jolly spotlight on all the gaping holes in your life. Will there ever be a Christmas that I don’t miss my son, for example? I wonder, once Christmas has become shadowed, does the sun ever turn full face on it again?
Of course I know that Christmas is about the incarnation, the crowning honour of humanity, the most God-with-us moment in all of history. Christmas means the birth of hope. That remains, no matter how gloomy or mournful or lonely a year.
But that doesn’t mean this Christmas — and many Christmases for many people — isn’t hard. That doesn’t mean we have to do away with our pain, forbidding it presence in the holiday cheer. Allowing heartbreak and sadness, anguish and depression, grief and disappointment a place at the table is important, no matter the time of year. When we dangerously assume that God doesn’t have time or room or compassion for our joylessness, we end up believing we must hide part of ourselves from him. Believing that being unhappy is — for some reason — wrong doesn’t change the fact that we often are unhappy. Believing it’s wrong to be unhappy does, however, keep us from the God who would weep, mourn, and lament with us just as soon as we would let him. Yes, yes he would comfort, soothe, and repair. But first, I believe, he would remember what it felt like on that tree and he would feel it all again with us.
Christmas, at its heart, is not without suffering. The Christmas story is one of uncertainty, exhaustion, fear, isolation, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants-ness, the trauma of delivery, and even death. When we pause to consider the reality of Mary and Joseph’s situation, when we imagine ourselves in their position, it’s quite plain that the Christmas story is decidedly not one giant hallelujah chorus. She was the first time teenage mother — which is physically and emotionally traumatic enough — of the Messiah, praying people accepted the wild, unheard-of explanation for her pregnancy… otherwise they would, you know, kill her. He was the good man hand-picked to marry a shamed woman and raise the Son of God — no pressure — while traveling long distances and having angelic visitations. This little learning family was running from a murderous king who slaughtered babies in their wake. Mary and Joseph were in a brand new, weird-as world with a whole lot of unknowns… that sounds so familiar this year. Yes, there was glory at the manger, but there was also literal blood, sweat, and tears. And, perhaps, anxiety. And unease. And overwhelm. And bone-deep fatigue.
The tree — the cursed, blessed tree — shadowed the manger even then. Among the wise gifts given was myrrh used for embalming. The fresh baby Jesus was provided what would later anoint his broken, beaten, bloody, dead body. Talk about some serious foreshadowing. The hope and light that came with the birth of the most precious babe was not without dread and darkness. Intermingled with great rejoicing was the solemnity of sacrifice. So… I think it’s okay if this Christmas, too, is a bit solemn and has a bit of dread and darkness… and disappointment and loneliness and sadness and weariness… mixed in.
Myrrh is used to perfume the dead. Perhaps it’s just me, but I’ve felt a lot of dying this year; death of illusions, death of idolatry, death of ignorance, death of control, death of comfort, death of certainty, death of selfishness… The list could go on and I hope that it does go on as more and more that is not of love’s kind — not of the Jesus Way of surrender — dies away in me. My prayer this Christmas is that myrrh would embalm my many deaths in praise. May my year die with the fragrance of laying down my life for love.