Have yourself a messy little Christmas
The birth of Jesus: Luke 2:1-14
NO DOUBT THERE ARE PERFECTLY BEHAVED AND MODEL FAMILIES out there preparing to have one of their traditionally smooth and merry Christmases. I salute you! I hope you appreciate how rare you are. For many of us, the holidays arrive with a wee bit more ambiguity. Some of us may be choosing our personally anticipated scenario from the following categories:
Grandma will arrive with a chip on her shoulder about what happened last Christmas (or 20 years ago) and she's not going to let anybody forget it. Dad will spend the whole week trying to keep a lid on her. Uncle Pete's going to show up two sheets to the wind, headed for three. Frieda will be standing on a chair shrieking the whole time about Pete's drinking; since rehab she has become a sobriety evangelist. Barbara worked till the last minute, and now she's stuck at O'Hare airport—why does she insist on flying through Chicago?—and won't be able to make it for dinner. Bill flat-out refuses to be among us because of the Unfortunate Incident no one will be talking about (but everyone will certainly be thinking about).
Cynthia isn't invited, and chances are she won't be welcome until she gives up her newfound devotion to the cult of Ramtha. Heather's not coming because Cynthia's not welcome; she thinks this family is too narrow-minded. And if we don't all head off to church, Aunt Sheila is going to have one of her famous fits. In her opinion, this family has become a darn sight too liberal. Anybody for Midnight Mass?
The nephews will show up late and spend the whole time smoking cigarettes (we hope it's cigarettes) on the back porch. Cousin Lisa is now a vegetarian. She is going to talk about the dead animal on the table all through dinner. Meanwhile the rest of us are going to dutifully eat it and lick our fingers. Let's hope nobody brings up the 2000 presidential election or it'll be World War III in the living room.
Martin has been involved in a lawsuit and looks miserable. Didn't he used to work for Arthur Andersen? And Brittany came alone this year. The second divorce has made her even more wary than the first. Young Mary's health is precarious, so she will not be able to stay very long. You can see the concern etched into her parents' faces.
And no matter how many people you put into this room, the empty chairs will be apparent. Grandpa always sat over there by the window. And cousin Ruth, before the cancer, was at the piano. And now, this year, Mom. How can we have Christmas without Mom?
This, too, is Christmas, with all of its conflict and heartache. We share a cultural fantasy that it's the best time of the year, but for many people, it's also the worst of times, when the seams and flaws of being a family are revealed at their raw center. Even the good memories hurt a little, because they belong to a world that no longer exists.
At the same time, christmas is unavoidable. whether we're home for the holidays, stuck at O'Hare, or wouldn't go back to the old homestead if it were the last place on Earth, Christmas is an overpowering reality that colors our world with flashing lights, music, movie reruns, and endless promotion. The sheer pervasiveness of it makes it an irresistible force even for those who would prefer to ignore the whole thing. So maybe we should stop beating ourselves up for not having the perfect family to go with the perfect holiday and consider the idea that there may never have been a perfect holiday to begin with.
Despite the gold-paint-trimmed manger scenes that will grace some of our churches and mantels this season, the original Christmas was no picnic. In no way would it have been chosen for a Kodak moment. The fact that it makes the cover of our Christmas cards is pure irony. An unmarried girl accepts as God's will that she conceive a child before she enters the home of her intended husband—who is not the father of the child. We sense conflict across 2,000 years. The husband-to-be has to decide, all God-talk to the contrary, whether he can accept the scandal involved in this inopportune pregnancy: Will it reflect poorly on him and his business? He will also have to embrace the responsibility of raising a child who is not his. Is it worth the risk, or should he look for another wife?
At the worst possible time, late in the pregnancy, government bureaucracy of the first century variety rears its ugly head, and the couple is forced to travel. Arriving in town as strangers and without reservations, they wind up spending the night in a barn. (Being stuck in an airport starts to sound better.) The baby is born amid the filth of animals. Angels may sing and sheep herders may bow, but the woman who just gave birth has to lie down on the ground. We can imagine her exhaustion. After getting his little family this far, her husband is hardly in better shape.
The first Christmas was not a pristine event, by any means. And the story doesn't get any more tidy. Three members of a pagan cult come calling shortly, offering worship to the newborn and some really nice gifts. Well, two of them are nice. One is a substance used in preparing a body for burial. Quite tactless, when you think about it. Not long after, some murderous tyrant is willing to kill every baby in town to get at this one. The little family hits the road again, this time leaving the country altogether.
When the baby is finally presented to the religious officials for the official rituals, a saintly man walks up and predicts the baby will be a sign of contradiction, not to mention the cause of heart-piercing sorrow to his mother. This is not exactly what parents want to hear. "Prince of Peace" would have been comforting; "sign of contradiction" sounds pretty grim. And if they could see farther into the future, the suffering this family will endure would scare them senseless now.
All told, the original christmas was a bit of a disaster, and the surrounding events were not especially merry. Our family gatherings, in whatever state of disarray and disappointment, might begin to look less frayed by comparison. Yet in the midst of the dirt and foreboding, in spite of fear and anxiety, something came into the world that first Christmas that hadn't been there before—a new and everlasting hope. A fresh start for the whole human race. A reason to fall on your knees.
And so we celebrate, or at least commemorate, the broken and imperfect aspects of our holiday as well. Consider Charlie Brown's Christmas, not a barrel of laughs for him, though perhaps for us, since we recognize his anguish. He suffers because the season has gone too commercial, has lost meaning and depth, and no one seems to share his sense of loss. His depression leads him to feel isolated in the midst of his family, even from his faithless dog. He tries to reintroduce the authentic nature of the season with the little pine tree that can't bear the weight of all that symbolism. It bows under a single bauble. The tiny little tree becomes a sign of contradiction among his friends. They wanted a mighty, shiny focal point for their frolics. They weren't looking for pathos.
Lowly Linus with his blanket ministers to the situation, bringing the message of the first Christmas with all of its surprises and wonders. He redeems the hour, and together they all work to redeem the little tree. This time, impossibly, it can bear the burden of all their Christmas hopes. Even Charlie Brown finds his way back to community and joy. And so do we, because this Christmas story sounds very familiar to anyone who has ever struggled to make his or her way into the mandatory but elusive Christmas spirit.
Perhaps the most popular, most aired, and most maligned holiday story is the one that mirrors to us just how closely our messy or tragic families mirror the broken edge of Christmas. It's a Wonderful Life is the little pine tree to end all pine trees. Here's a family born to crisis! The story begins with a child who suffers early hearing loss and endless disappointments because of the expectations and responsibility of being family. The family business is always on the verge of failure. The uncle is pretty daft. The father dies suddenly. The son who hates the business like a sickness has to assume the task of running it. He forgoes a world of dreams to do his duty. He marries in near-poverty and is ever hounded by a villain with more money and power than he'll ever touch. With a pack of small children at home relying on him, not to mention every one of his poor neighbors, the man is at last cheated and ruined. His marriage is stressed to the breaking point, and his sense of reason and proportionality is ready to snap. Pour a little liquor over his despair and stir. Merry Christmas?
What makes It's a Wonderful Life the premier secular version of the Christmas story is that this whole mess, this lousy business of being family and doing the right thing is both the damnation and salvation of the man who lives it. The moments of love and lightheartedness and loyalty intersperse the dreadful times of loss and regret like threads through a seamless cloth. George Bailey's life is the ultimate sign of contradiction. He is a poor man who is unbelievably rich. A doubter who hangs on with a mustard seed of faith. His ragged extended family is at once a holy family. And his kindness to his neighbor is returned to him, in the hour of trial, one hundred-fold. Despite remarkable obstacles, an ordinary and powerless person defeats the mightiest man in town. Yet nothing he ever did was all that brave or noteworthy. An accumulation of small choices over a lifetime—what we call the formation of character—made it possible for him to make the greatest choice, which was for life itself.
Christmas can feel like a tremendous test of character for some of us. Well, perhaps in a way it is. We are challenged to suspend judgment on our families for being who they are at this particular moment of history and in their development as people. We are asked to laugh more and frown less in our encounters with them. We are invited to be gentler on ourselves, for what we have done or failed to do.
We might acknowledge that, along with the golden moments and sweet fragrance of family life, the myrrh arrives too, a third and not entirely welcome gift. Being family includes disappointments, crises, hard decisions, and contradictions. The peace we seek may be obscured by conflict. People will not always behave as we wish them to. To love human beings means to embrace imperfect folks with built-in obsolescence.
Let's love them now, accept them while we have the chance, and forgive them, living or deceased, for making us forfeit some dreams. Even under the most undesirable of circumstances, families are capable of revealing wonder. Maybe even a reason to fall on our knees.
Alice Camille is the author of Exploring the Sunday Readings and God's Word Is Alive!, both available from Twenty-Third Publications.