It is Christmas Eve and I am sitting alone in my motel room. It is cold as I have been gone all day but just came back and turned on the heat. As I reflect back on all that has happened in my life and my family's life in the last year, it is all so different than Christmases past. There is sadness, some of it sweet and tender, but some of it is just plain painful and even a bit scary. But that does not mean that I do not believe. That does not mean that my Christmas is terrible or ruined. No - it teaches me more about what Christmas is and what it isn't.
There are some things that I have known or suspected for a long time. Christmas is not about hunting high and low to find gifts for our friends and family, nor is it about expectantly tearing the paper off of brightly wrapped packages. It is not about watching children's excitement when they rush at their presents Christmas morning. It is not about sending cards, decorating a tree, baking cookies, hanging up lights or singing Christmas carols. It is not even about spending the day going to church or being with family. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these activities nor am I suggesting that we not do these things at Christmas time. It is just that they are not Christmas.
Although there is historical evidence that the man, Jesus, lived and walked this earth, we do not know exactly when he was born. The ancient writings of the scriptures tell us stories about how and where he was born and a Christmas mythology has developed around those stories. I am not using the term "mythology" to suggest that the stories are not true, but rather that the stories have been elaborated upon to convey a meaning in our culture that goes beyond what is historically knowable. If we listen to the words of our favorite (or worn out by now) Christmas carols, we can see this, "Hark the Herald Angels Sing", "Little Drummer Boy", "Away in a Manger", etc. There is nothing inherently wrong with these products of our cultural Christmas. It is just that they are not Christmas.
Christmas is about love. About unconditional love. About the giving up of self so completely as to risk it all. This sort of love is not always pretty (or happy or fun or even interesting). In Christmas language, it is about a very pregnant young woman having to travel for days to satisfy the need of a ruler to count people in a census. It is about her being forced to give birth for the first time, away from home, with little help and in a stable with animals, feed and manure. Or it is about a husband-to-be making the same journey, risking being made a fool of for trusting that his betrothed is truly chosen by God rather than cheating on him. In Christmas language, it is about the Creator of the entire universe (now estimated to involve billions of galaxies) allowing himself to become as small and vulnerable as one human baby on one little planet, doing this so that he could help his lost children find their way home. Doing this even if that meant allowing them to insult and murder him. It is a love beyond anything we can imagine - if only it is true. If we want to celebrate Christmas, it is this we must celebrate, this love that goes beyond everything, that enters suffering and isn't always happy or beautiful in the ways we tend to think of happiness and beauty.
To truly celebrate Christmas, we are called to become students of this kind of love. If we know this, there is no harm in the fun celebrations of the cultural Christmas. However, if the cultural Christmas is all we have, we may find ourselves on the edge of a dangerous precipice. One year, there may be an illness, a job loss, a death or any of a number of other sufferings that will make that cultural Christmas seem utterly meaningless. If we have not known what Christmas truly is, we may find ourselves facing a gaping emptiness as the holidays approach. We may find that we don't want Christmas to happen and we may even feel that all of our past beliefs were just stories that held no truth at all.
Yet to celebrate the true Christmas is no small or easy endeavor. It may frighten us as we recognize how incapable we are of grasping this sort of love. (Our world tends to tell us that the great cannot be concerned with the small, so those billions of galaxies can make it inconceivable that the Creator could care about us, broken creatures of one small planet in one little galaxy.) We may feel overwhelmed by the inadequacy of our own attempts at love. It is hard enough just to love and get along with those I am supposed to love (family, friends). How can I possibly learn to be part of this love that gives all?
A favorite passage from a famous novel, The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky, comes to mind:
"Never be frightened at your own faint-heartedness in attaining love. Don’t be frightened overmuch even at your evil actions. I am sorry I can say nothing more consoling to you, for love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed and in the sight of all. Men will even give their lives if only the ordeal does not last long but is soon over, with all looking on and applauding as though on the stage. But active love is labour and fortitude, and for some people too, perhaps, a complete science. But I predict that just when you see with horror that in spite of all your efforts you are getting farther from your goal instead of nearer to it- at that very moment I predict that you will reach it and behold clearly the miraculous power of the Lord who has been all the time loving and mysteriously guiding you."
How do I even begin to become a student of this "harsh and dreadful love" that is true Christmas? To begin as a student, I first must realize that I need to be taught, i.e. that I cannot possibly understand it or figure it out by myself. Then, I must find a Teacher. Fortunately, there is One who has come to teach us, to show us the way. Our Teacher is here to take us by the hand and guide us, to walk with us on all parts of the path - the parts that are fun and full of good feelings as well as the parts that are lonely, painful or frightening. Our Teacher teaches us the way of love by being with us and loving us. If we but accept the love, we will begin to carry it in our hearts. In our hearts, it becomes a light in the darkness - perhaps a very small light at first, but a light nonetheless. As we share it, even in the smallest of ways, it grows...
(Below is my little gift to you - and yes, it includes a Christmas song, played with love...)