Sitting next to me in another hard, plastic chair is a good-hearted man wearing brightly colored scrubs — colors that label him as guilty of a crime. We’re in a florescent lit room inside the county jail: bare white walls and glass windows, a camera overhead.
There are about a dozen of us in this circle, praying with Advent Scriptures. Messages of waiting, anticipation, expectation are read aloud. Then we discuss, consider: What does it mean to be people of hope? How does hope influence their life inside these walls, even while separated from their children? O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.
At a glance, most observers might assume that I’m the only free person in the room. That as a visitor and minister, I’m able to enjoy liberty and live as I wish, in ways that align with the Gospel. But in the following days, the Spirit reminds me I’m not free.
Except, for you, this holiday season is anything but. Maybe you are moving through the annual traditions for the first time without a loved one because of death or divorce. Maybe a job loss or economic hardship means buying gifts or booking travel is financially out of reach. Maybe family dysfunction brought on by addiction or mental illness has strained relationships to the breaking point. Maybe you are spending your days enduring chemotherapy or healing from major surgery instead of trimming the tree and wrapping gifts. Maybe your experience of infant loss or miscarriage means that the mail filled with cheery photos of others’ kids sitting on Santa’s lap or posed beside the fireplace touches your own place of loss. Maybe this year, you and yours are among so many who have been touched by natural disasters or gun violence or deportation or mass incarceration.
Maybe these or any number of other things has knocked the wind of you and left you wondering how you will make it through the coming days. Instead of joining in the angels’ exultant song of jubilation, your heart resonates more with “O Come O Come Emmanuel’s” plaintive words of mourning in lonely exile.
If this is you, I’m sorry. Whatever your struggle is, it’s legitimate, and whatever hard feelings it elicits – anxiety, grief, anger or sadness – are real. You’re not Ebenezer Scrooge because you’re unable to marshal the inner resources for holiday cheer this year, you’re just human. Even when you try to focus on the positive and what you’re thankful for instead of what you’ve lost, there is no short-circuiting grief. More and more churches acknowledge this reality and now offer “Longest Night” or “Blue Christmas” liturgies as spaces of prayer and pastoral care for those who struggle.
As I’ve been accompanying some loved ones who find this season challenging, it seems the general message offered in mainstream culture, “Be joyful and happy! Holidays are filled with magic and delight!” only serves to highlight the chasm between what they wished they were feeling with what they actually are. It is salt in the wound not only to grieve a loss but then to be fed a steady diet of idealized images of the picture-perfect holiday. The crooning singers advising “let your heart be light” because “from now on your troubles will be out of sight” don’t help matters much.
If you’re living in the uncomfortable gap between the ideal and the real, take heart: this perfect holiday tableau of cheerful families in matching pajamas, gathered around a huge turkey or the Christmas tree, is the invention of marketers trying to sell us stuff. That’s how advertising works: it offers an attractive ideal that we invariably fall short of and then pitches a product or service with the promise that we, too, can achieve that ideal. The commercialization is the cultural water we swim in, so it is hard to separate that American capitalist spin from the Gospel truth of the Feast of the Incarnation. But it’s worth dissecting the cultural overlay from the scriptural narrative – especially if you’re not feeling “merry and bright” this holiday season.
If it is any consolation, if we excavate the original Christmas story out from under the accumulated layers of advertising content, it’s plain to see that the first Christmas would not make a feel-good Hallmark movie. When the culture offers images of jolly Santa and his flying reindeer, or affluent families with toothpaste-commercial smiles opening piles of perfectly wrapped gifts, the Gospels offer the story of Emmanuel, God with us, poor and weak.
Joseph, Mary and Jesus were vulnerable and faced great uncertainty as Jews living under brutal imperial occupiers. It’s hard to imagine that there wasn’t tension in the family when Mary announced she was pregnant outside of marriage, especially when Mosaic law prescribed she should be stoned. Mary and Joseph weren’t wealthy (as evidenced by their offering in the temple) and lived under heavy taxation (which is why they traveled to Bethlehem for the census). There was no room at the inn for them, and then they fled to Egypt as refugees because of Herod’s ruthless decree to slaughter children. The Lukan author reminds us that when the Christ child was presented in the temple, Mary was told a sword would pierce her heart. Myrrh, one of the gifts of the Magi, was used for embalming and prefigures death.
There is darkness and tumult to this story; however, in churches or culture in general, it doesn’t get much air time in popular depictions of Christmas. Though I understand adapting the narrative to make it kid-friendly, it is a pastoral disservice to make the Christmas story too sanitized and saccharine. Yes, there is rejoicing, new life and good news. And it comes in the midst of the messiness, fear, uncertainty, loss and oppression that maybe resonates with you if you’re not in a head space to sing “be of good cheer!” Christmas is about the birth of God coming in the middle of a lot of turmoil and pain.
The cleaned-up scene in church sanctuary creches or in pastel tones on Christmas cards distances us from the more complicated truth. God was born as a baby into a messy, broken, chaotic world. From a scriptural standpoint, the Christmas spirit has nothing to do with our American cultural clichés and everything to do with the miracle of a light shining in the darkness that is not overcome. Jesuit Alfred Delp, who was killed for his opposition to the Nazis, wrote that “the early Church viewed Christmas as the feast of the great howl of those whose lives have been upended, shaken – the birth is not a romantic wonder, it’s a chancy rescue mission from the borders.”
So if it doesn’t feel like the most wonderful time of the year – take heart that you are not alone. The birth of the Christ child is not supposed to be “a romantic wonder.” Let’s turn off the TV with its constant flash of idealized images of holiday cheer and close the glossy pages of catalogues peddling a pictures of prosperity and glee. And let’s turn back to the original story of this “chancy rescue mission” of how God chose to enter the world as a vulnerable newborn in the midst of great uncertainty and turmoil.