A Bittersweet Christmas
Christmas is a funny thing, isn’t it?
Take the other night at my house: Christmas decorating night! We hauled out the boxes of decorations from the attic while Pandora churned out a wonderful blend of Christmas music. Our pre-lit tree somehow made a decision within the last year to have the top lights go on strike, but the rest was going beautifully, in a kid-ified sort of way. We had mixed in our more lovely ornaments with the angels made from upside-down snow cone cups, and my husband discreetly thinned out the ornament clusters that happen when all the stepstools are on one side of the tree.
And then, of course, the kids started arguing—that’s my stepstool, I wanted to hang that one up, he scared the tar out of me when he snuck up behind me with a villainous howl—typical Christmas stuff. Add to that a little whining; I could tell you what it sounded like, but it wasn’t completely intelligible, and you have that kind of thing at your house. (Setting your teeth on edge doesn’t make for a good post anyway.) My family started running out of time as bedtime drew near, for which there were a lot of good “I need sleep or I’m going to get even crankier” clues. I tried to top off the tree decorating with homemade hot chocolate which got on some jammies, and then my son choked on a marshmallow and spit it back in the cup. Glad he’s okay. Ew.
My husband and I started readying the crew for bed. Our older two sons kept trying to zap each other with their invisible Jedi force. All children decided obedience was not the decision of choice. The two-year-old was trying to pick a wrestling match with some good old fashioned body-slamming. I looked at my husband. “I think I am ready for this night of happy celebration to be done.” Above the whining and zapping, he raised his eyebrows. “You mean this one that’s neither completely happy nor celebratory?”
And there’s the Christmas paradox for you. In celebration of what God’s done (and sometimes for other reasons), we put up lights, write songs, give gifts, feast with family, and all in all, try to do what’s humanly possible to make it a fantastic day. In a lot of ways, it works! You’d be hard-pressed to find somebody who doesn’t like Christmas.
But in all of our efforts, Christmas can also reveal what’s still so far from perfect. This day of joy exposes the goodbyes we’ve made in years past, the brokenness of our relationships, and the persistence of the ordinary. After all, there are still piles of ripped wrapping paper, return lines at the store, graying snow by the side of the road, and relatives that either leave, or someone wishes they had already. (Not me, I note to all my reading relatives!)
This year, our family has some fabulous happenings scheduled for Christmas! But there’s that Christmas reality creeping up on us again. My kids’ parties with their closest friends are goodbye parties, because we are moving to Africa in January. This will be the last year for awhile that we have a Christmas tree, and it was set up in an empty living room. After years of separation, I will see all of my lovely family in my parents’ home before we depart to our four different continents. A month later, my husband and I will offer fierce goodbye hugs to our parents in an airport, our rather pocket-sized Christmas gifts already checked in mammoth duffel bags.
Some of you feel losses far greater this year. They aren’t conquered by a cheerful tree with haphazard decorations, the perfect cup of cocoa, or a familiar Christmas song in the air. You may be dealing with a stark diagnosis, months without a paycheck, an empty seat at your kitchen table, or deciding which parent’s house has custody on Christmas Day.
But Christmas also reminds me of something else: The end of waiting. Jesus’ arrival in the rather odorous equivalent of a parking lot was the culmination of ages of waiting for rescue. And in a world constantly punctuated by lack of perfection, the end of our advent is coming. This world is marked by waiting, goodbyes, pain. (Uh, and whining and fighting. Not like that would ever happen.) Yet the festivities of Christmas can be a shadow of an ultimate perfection not far away. Even our most painful, imperfect celebrations remind us that God has redeemed every bit of sin and death around us, and that its full reality is not far away. He’s comin’ back, folks—and everything that doesn’t work, everything that tears our hearts, will be conquered forever.
(Do you think that includes the Jedi force? My kids will want to know.)