Making Christmas Real

Making Christmas Real

The wilderness and dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. . . Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Hear is your God.”
Isaiah 35:1-10

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered him, “Go and tell John what you see and hear: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
Matthew 11:2-11

We all have chores or responsibilities that require us to show up for them whether we want to or not. If you grew up on a farm, for example, you know that cows need to be milked twice a day, regardless of how you might feel about milking cows. If you’re the parent of an infant who isn’t yet sleeping through the night or are providing care to anyone who needs care around the clock, you know that it doesn’t matter if you’re tired–you get up when the baby cries or your charge calls you because that’s needed. How you feel doesn’t factor into your decision, if “decision” is even the right word for what goes through your mind as you get up to do what must be done.

There are emotional dimensions to this same experience on all points of the relational spectrum. Perhaps you are a sibling called upon to be fully present to a brother or sister on a joyous occasion when you’re going through a tough time. Or you’re a young person, full of life, summoned to a grandparent’s hospital room for one last goodbye. Such emotional dissonance is part of life, and it’s the kind of experience that makes us better people, as we learn to be present, bringing our whole selves where we’re called to be, aware of our dissonant feelings but not acting on them, and at the same time not imagining that because of them we don’t belong.

I say all this by way of analogy for the range of emotional possibilities that are part of the Advent/Christmas season, both in and outside of church. Like other events on the calendar, Christmas comes every year, no matter how we might feel about it, whether or not “we’re ready” or “ in the spirit,” whatever that means. Christmas comes in peacetime and in war; in times of sorrow and of joy; in sickness and in health, for better, for worse. Christmas comes no matter how you feel about the state of our nation and our world. Christmas comes.

In my own circle of family and friends: our son and daughter-in-law are newlyweds and are looking forward to their first Christmas as a married couple with the blush of new love and excitement of starting of new traditions. And one of our dearest friends died last week, leaving behind a grieving husband and five heartbroken children and stepchildren. Such range is present in nearly every family.

But there is good news in the midst of real life: there’s no need to worry about how you feel as Christmas approaches. You needn’t judge yourself, or frankly, place too much stock on your side of the emotional equation. Emotional dissonance is, in part, what gives Christmas its meaning and its power. We can all simply let the season be, let the spiritual insights of this holy time speak to us, wherever we are.

Today is the third Sunday of the season devoted to preparing to receive the spiritual gifts of Christmas. As such, the day’s scripture readings offer images and words that speak to all levels of our experience.

From the prophet Isaiah, we’re given the image of flowers blooming in the desert. Now I’ve lived in the Arizona desert, and flowers are not what come to mind when I remember the desert landscape. But there are flowers in the desert, briefly, at the end of the rainy season. They are mostly small and amazingly resilient. Desert flowers are beautiful and unexpected, and in our mind’s eye they can be images of grace arising from the most inhospitable environments.

From the Gospel story we have an even more dissonant image for the season, that of John the Baptist in prison, about to be executed. He sends his disciples to ask Jesus a burning question: Are you the One who is to come, or are we to wait for another? What an unexpected question from the one who had dedicated his entire life to the coming of the Messiah, who was there at Jesus’ baptism, and heard the voice of God say, “This is my Beloved Son.” But near the hour of his death John wonders if it was all for naught.  He gives us permission to give voice to the most unsettling of doubts that surface when what we were once so sure of collapses all around us. Whatever your version of John’s question is, you can ask it, especially at Christmas. But then listen, as John listened, for whatever answer comes.

And remember on Christmas Eve we will gather to remember the birth of a child born over two thousand years ago whose coming into the world changed the world. That child was born in the most dubious of circumstances, and we celebrate his birth not because it all happened perfectly, but precisely because everything wasn’t perfect. Imperfection is where God chose to come, and chooses still. Dissonance is expected.

Let me close with a story that on the surface has nothing to do with Christmas, but for me captures the essence of this often mixed up, dissonant time.

The story comes from the novel Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner, which tells of a friendship between two couples over their lifetimes. They met when the two men, Sid and Larry, began their work as struggling English professors in the late 1930s. Both couples were young: Larry and his wife, Sally, were poor. Sid and his wife, Chastity, came from families with money. Chastity was the flaming extrovert among them and the one who took charge, at times overbearingly so. Sid was the first of the two men to secure a tenured position, but his literary career never amounted to much. Larry struggled longer, but eventually wrote several books of great acclaim. Sally was gentle and quiet, but she loved her more flamboyant friend Chastity.

At some point in her early 30s, Sally contracted polio and almost died. She remained crippled for the rest of her life. The couples raised their children together, shared summers at Sid and Chastity’s family summer home in Maine, and tried in their own ways to make a contribution during the tumultuous years of the Great Depression, Second World War and post-war era. Their friendship was not without struggle, but it remained the touchstone of their lives.

When they were in their mid-50s, the foursome traveled to Italy for an extended holiday. They rented a villa in Florence and spent their days in the routine they loved best: mornings for work and study; afternoons for excursions; evenings for leisurely dinners and a shared bottle of wine. Chastity, true to her character, organized most of their outings.

One day they rented a car and drove to a nearby town to see the paintings of a renowned artist, Piero della Francesca. They made a special effort to see his most famous painting where it hung in a small chapel over the altar. It was a depiction of Christ’s resurrection at the very moment he rose from the tomb.

Up until then, the day had been light-hearted—great weather, wonderful food, easy conversation among them. But Piero’s Christ knocked all joy out of them, as Larry, the narrator, put it, “like an elbow to the solar plexus.” It was not the face of a god reclaiming his suspended immortality, but the face of a man who until a moment ago had been thoroughly and horribly dead, and still had the smell of death in his clothes and the terror of death in his mind. If resurrection had taken place, it had not yet been comprehended.

Three of the four were moved to silence by the painting. Chastity didn’t like it and said so rather loudly. Where was the hope? And why such sadness in Christ’s eyes? But Sally stood a long while on her crutches in front of the painting, with recognition in her eyes, “as if,” her husband surmised, “those who have been dead understand things that will never be understood by those who have only lived.”

As they drove back to their villa in silence, they were hailed by a team of roadside workers. One of them had been injured badly, his right hand mangled and bloody. The couples agreed to give him a ride to the nearest town, and he got into their small car. As they drove on, he winced in pain every time the car hit a bump, which was often, and just as they were about to turn toward the next town, he motioned for them to stop. When they did, he got of the car and began walking down the road, away from the town. In their broken Italian, the four tried to persuade him to come back to the car, to no avail. Eventually, they drove on without him, feeling they had failed at something essential.

Later that night, Larry turned to Sally and asked, “Did you see his eyes?” speaking of the roadside worker. “Oh yes,” she said. “Tell me something,” he asked. “When you remember today, what will you remember best, the spring countryside and the company of friends, or Piero’s Christ and the workman with the mangled hand?” She thought for a moment. “All of it,” she said. “It wouldn’t be real if you left out any part, would it?”

My friends, Christmas wouldn’t be real if we left any part of ourselves out. And so bring all of yourself: bring every joy, every sorrow; every disappointment, every hope. Allow God to show up for you, where you are.

And remember that each person in your life and all those you meet are also the ones for whom Christ is born, ones whose whole selves are invited to show up. Through whatever gesture of kindness or generosity you offer, you may be an instrument of grace, an assurance of God’s love, the very essence of Christmas for another person, no matter how you feel.

For Christmas comes to all of us, and through all of us, ready or not.

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