Many things can get in the way of the happy, sparkling Christmas celebrations to which we aspire. The Dollar family has perfected one such thing—the Christmas stomach bug that tears its way through the family, leading to days of extra laundry, interrupted nights, and general nastiness. (Three years in a row, people—2010, 2011, and 2012. Prayers for a puke-free Christmas would be most welcome, to supplement the strategically placed Purell pumps all over our house.) My fall on the ice a few weeks ago, leading to broken ribs and a collapsed lung, was another such thing. There are many more events that can get in the way of the Christmas we hope for—badly timed snowstorms, traffic jams, certain visiting family members, grocery stores that run out of the very ingredient you need to finish a traditional family dish, the cat knocking over the tree and breaking treasured ornaments.
And there are far worse things that get in the way of Christmas—the recent death or serious illness of a loved one, unemployment and financial strain, troubled marriages or children.
Many spiritually minded folk also warn us every year that the very traditions we treasure—the baking and cooking, the lighting and decorating, the gift buying and wrapping—get in the way of an authentic Christmas celebration, because we’re too busy to ponder the true, religious meaning of this holy season.
There is no doubt that stomach bugs and cancelled flights and grief and frenetic consumerism can make Christmas into something that must be endured rather than celebrated. But the events that get in the way of Christmas can also point to the fundamental truth of this season—God coming to live with us as one of us, God incarnate, Emmanuel.
As I wrote on my Patheos blog earlier this week, all of the work that goes into our Christmas preparations is not necessarily a distraction. Rather, by engaging in physical tasks, we honor a God who chose to take on the limits, humility, and pleasures of a human body. How better to welcome God incarnate than by doing things that honor our incarnate selves, tasks that feed the body and delight the senses?
Likewise, many of the things that get in the way of the Christmas of our dreams can be reminders of the radical, surprising love of a God who took on human limits, and who dwells with us still.
I have a good friend who travels to the West Bank every few years with Christian Peacemaker Teams. They engage in simple acts of solidarity with Palestinian people living in occupied areas. They walk children to school. They escort shepherds to land where their families have grazed sheep for centuries, past Israeli checkpoints and boundaries. The CPTers’ goal is to “get in the way.” The simple presence and witness of a few foreign visitors during normal routines forces everyone to rethink those routines and their actions. By “getting in the way,” CPT suggests a different perspective and nudges people away from perpetuating routine injustices.
I wonder if all that gets in the way of our ideal Christmas vision likewise forces us to rethink why we celebrate. I wonder if all that gets in the way of our ideal Christmas vision suggests a different perspective and nudges us closer to understanding the radical love of a God who comes to us in the helpless, squalling, hungry body of a newborn baby.
Because of Jesus, we know that God intimately understands the mess, pain, and grief, as well as the pleasure, joy, and satisfaction of human life in a human body. This is what the radical love of Emmanuel, God with us, means:
When you are washing soiled sheets at 10 p.m. on Christmas night, AGAIN….God is there.
When teachers and friends get store-bought cookies instead of homemade, because the family baker is recovering from a fall on the ice…God is there.
When you avoid taking too many photos and hope the neighbors don’t stop by because the house isn’t that clean and you only got half of the decorations up….God is there.
When your children are whining and bickering instead of oozing gratitude as they play with their new toys in the glow of the firelight...God is there.
When you send Christmas morning greetings via cell phone from a Midwestern airport, where you’re eating a stale bagel and waiting to get a seat on another flight….God is there.
When parents can’t afford to make traditional family recipes or get their children what they really want for Christmas….God is there.
When your grief is so fresh and heavy that you can’t believe you’ll ever have another merry Christmas….God is there.
This is the fundamental message of Christmas: God is there in all of life, all the time, no matter what. And those events that get in the way of our celebrations can, perhaps, remind us of God’s presence more effectively than the celebration that goes off without a hitch.
Or maybe so much gets in the way that Christmas just stinks. God is there, too, in the ruined holiday where we see no possibility of redemption. God is actually an expert in situations where there appears to be no possibility of redemption. So we pack up the decorations, file away the recipes, and hope for something different. God is there too, in the tentative hope of “maybe next year will be better.”
During his earthly ministry, Jesus made a habit of going where people didn't expect him to go. He didn't hang out at the fancy rich folks' homes where the decor and food were always abundant and impeccable. Rather, he hung out with prostitutes and tax collectors and wrangled a dinner invitation from a short little dude who climbed up into a tree for a better view. The homes where Jesus spent so much time were probably noisy and chaotic, the food basic. Perhaps we are more likely to encounter Jesus when our Christmas celebrations are marked more by mess and mistakes and honest emotion than by impeccable taste and social graces and perfection.
However Christmas ends up, may we know that God is there with us, no matter what.
Ellen Painter Dollar is a professional writer and member of St. James’s Episcopal Church. She blogs for St. James’s every Monday, offering reflections on current events, family life, and parish life.