It was a number of years ago, a few days before Christmas, and my mom wasn’t feeling well. So she went to see her cardiologist, who admitted her to the hospital for an electrical cardio-version procedure. As I talked with her after the procedure, my mom told me she had been under a lot of stress, and she believed the stress is what caused her heart to go out of rhythm. As we talked about that, she shared that there were two things weighing heavily upon her. One was that her brother was dying of lung cancer. The other was Christmas.
I totally understand the stress that losing a family member can bring. The death of a loved one is one of those stressors that can be difficult for anyone to handle. But Christmas? I asked my mom why Christmas was causing her stress.
She said, “Oh, you know. There’s so much to do at Christmas time. Getting cards ready. Shopping. Wrapping. Cooking. Baking. Decorating. Making sure the house is clean. All those things.” This is from the woman who taught me the real meaning of Christmas. So I said to her, “Mom, you don’t have to do any of those things. Just relax.” Fortunately, the rest of the family felt as I did. And we held our family Christmas gathering at my brother’s home that year.
It’s easy to get caught up in the customs and traditions we’ve come to enjoy at Christmas and lose sight of what it’s really all about. Or if we don’t completely lose sight of the true meaning of Christmas, maybe it gets a little blurry.
And yet I’m guessing that if you’re reading this article, you get it. At Christmas, we celebrate the incarnation of God. That moment in time when God took on human form and came to dwell in our midst. Or as John’s gospel so beautifully renders it: And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a
father’s only son full of grace and truth. (1:14)
It’s easy to get caught up in the beauty of Christmas. The little baby Jesus in his mother’s arms, the angelic announcement, wise men following a star to shower the baby with gifts. With images provided by countless Christmas pageants, we imagine a baby who doesn’t cry, a feeding trough as soft as a crib, a warm stable which doesn’t smell, and a mother and father who are happy to be living in a barn. That is the romanticized version.
The real version of Christmas includes anxiety about an unexpected pregnancy, a long journey during the ninth month, no reservations and no place to stay in Bethlehem, sharing the birthing room with barnyard animals, no Christmas carols in the background, the flight to Egypt to avoid certain death, and the slaughter of the innocents at the edict of the mad King Herod, that part of the Christmas story you’ll never see on a greeting card.
This is not a story for the fainthearted. Indeed, it was a cold, cruel world into which Jesus was born. And that was just the beginning. As the scriptures testify, sooner or later Jesus would experience every aspect of human existence, including testing and suffering and death. And he would do so for our benefit. He would do so for our salvation.
The truth is that Jesus entered into every detail of human life. He got hungry and thirsty. He got tired. He was disappointed at times. Sometimes angry. Sometimes sad. Sometimes inpatient. He laughed. He cried. He was tempted. He bled when he was cut. He suffered. He died.
I take heart in the fact that Jesus Christ was completely human. It means that when my mom was afraid of losing her brother, and she prayed, she prayed to Christ who wept at the tomb of Lazarus. And he knew what my mom was feeling. It means that when I’m tempted to make a wrong choice, and I pray, I pray to Christ who, himself, was tempted in the desert. And he knows how hard it is to make the right choice. It means that when one of the saints of the church is struggling with cancer, and the pain is unbearable, and she prays, she prays to Christ, who experienced the pain of the cross. It means that when I’m facing my own death, and I’m afraid, I can pray to Christ who has conquered death. And he will grant me courage and hope and peace.
The story is told of a missionary who found it necessary to be gone from his family for an extended time. Aware that his leaving would not be understood by his youngest daughter, he placed in his coat pocket a rare treat in their part of the world, a bright red apple, which he planned to give her as he boarded the train. Finally, the moment came. He embraced his wife and each of the older children. And then it was his little girl's turn. Picking her up in his arms, he pressed the apple into her chubby hand, hoping that this special gift would soften the impact of his leaving. But instead, as he looked back from the slowly departing train, he saw the apple slip from her hand and roll across the platform. Tears streaming down her face, she ran alongside the train sobbing, “Daddy, I don't want what you give! I want you!”
That is the reality of the incarnation. God's love is such that God does not simply give us things. God gives us Emmanuel, which means God with us. As we make our way through a world that can be brutal and unforgiving, as we go through life with all its challenges, as we constantly face choices between right and wrong, as we face death with all its uncertainties, the reality is we are not alone. God in Christ is with us in every detail of human life, helping us to face life’s challenges. That is the bottom line of Christmas. Thanks be to God.
Mindful of its true meaning, may you have a stress-free, meaningful and joyful Christmas! Mindful that God in Christ is always with you, may you face each day of your life with confidence and hope!