Christmas, I confess, is my favorite time of year. And I say this despite the fact that it is also the most painful.
Always in early December I begin the Advent journey with great hope and joy and wonder, and always by the third week or so I get thrown from my horse—or my donkey. Nothing like a donkey for a bumpy ride, and somehow this season always gives me the bumps, embroiling me in strife, struggle, moodiness, disillusionment.
If this is true for many people, it’s partly because we are sensitive souls caught in the machinery of a fraught festival. Christmas is a collision of heavenly grace with worldly crassness, the occasion for a thousand darknesses—family tensions, greed, grief, loss, depression—to be hauled for inspection into the presence of light. T.S. Eliot said it so well in his poem “Journey of the Magi”: “This Birth was / Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.”
Death, however, is not the final word of Christmas, any more than of Easter. Despite the difficulty of this season, there always comes for me a point when Christmas happens, when God comes through and pulls me out of the pit.
Consider my journal entry for December 25, 2007:
A ragged ride through Christmas Eve. To bed very late, feeling confused and cut off from everyone, a troubled night. Awoke suddenly, dreading the day, swamped with nameless anxiety.
After breakfast we had a brief prayer time, which Karen began with, “Lord, I just want to say a little prayer….” Something about that line struck my funny bone and I burst into laughter. Astonishingly, what came out when I opened my mouth was a very distinct “Ho, ho, ho!” And then a long string of ho-ho-ho’s. (I never laugh like that.) Karen even commented, “Sounds like Santa Claus has arrived.” And then I laughed and laughed uncontrollably: a gift of holy laughter! Just what I needed to free me up to rejoice in the day.
Another year when I’d been through the seasonal wringer, I found myself meditating on Isaiah 9:2: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” And on Christmas Day I saw that light. I saw it in our nativity scene, which we always set up by the fireplace. I don’t know quite how it happened, but as I peered at the figure of the babe in the manger, the Great Light of Christmas shone out and flooded my heart.
Yet another time, when I’d been struggling a great deal with church-related problems, on Christmas Eve I was impressed with how beautiful our church was. There were a couple of dozen decorated evergreens, a multitude of wreaths and boughs, and a large, gorgeous red sash draped behind the altar. I felt I was inside an enormous Christmas present! And the Lord said to me, “Yes, My church is a gift. Will you receive it?” I did, and my problems resolved.
The next day I stood outside watching the sunset. There was just one cloud in the sky—a long reddish ribbon draped across the horizon—and I heard the Lord whisper, “You see? This whole world is a gift.”
These are just three examples of the kind of thing that happens to me at Christmas. Like a comet returning annually to the earth, heaven draws near in December, just as it did for the magi and the shepherds who both witnessed celestial prodigies. As Shakespeare wrote in the only significant reference to Christmas in all of his plays—
Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit can walk abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm
so hallowed and so gracious is the time.
~Hamlet, Act 1
Shakespeare’s language stops my breath, and my pen, so I’ll end here. Except to wish you all a hallowed and gracious Christmas.
(An excerpt from the Preface to Twenty-One Candles: Stories for Christmas)
(Photo by Karen Mason)