It was quite unexpected. Her mother fell on a patch of ice the week before Thanksgiving. The broken hip was a concern, but following surgery, she was admitted to rehab. It seemed as though all was well. But then there were complications. She died about a week ago. The family gathered for the funeral on the Saturday before Christmas.
Three adult sons are living with their mother. One had spent time in jail for a drug-related offense. Another, well….the neighbors said that he was “a bit slow.” The third left a failed marriage. They were trying to get by on mother’s social security and working various jobs in big box stores and fast food restaurants. They were good neighbors and helped others, including doing yard work for those who due to age couldn’t keep up with the work. Just last week, the notice went up on the front door: the bank was going to foreclose on the mortgage. What would be next for them?
I met for coffee with a man I know. In his 40’s, he’s a successful businessman … and white. His wife, working in government, is African-American. They have two teenage boys nearing adulthood. While the boys are mixed race, most people identify them as African-American. The man tells me that he’s afraid for his sons. “What will happen if they are in the wrong place at the wrong time? What if they have a run-in with the police? I don’t know how to help them.” Yes, it’s a problem Black parents face, but this white man finds himself confused and troubled on how to sort out his own experience of “white privilege” while being a good parent to young African-American teenage boys.
As John Lennon sang in a song from my youth, “So, this is Christmas!”
Our images of Christmas are of warmth, good cheer, and peace among people. While there is a good deal of merry-making and celebrations small and large, the world doesn’t stop for Christmas. If anything, our hopes of what Christmas should make the realities of life seem more harsh and frustrating.
Our fantasies about Christmas gloss over the sacred stories of the birth of Jesus that are the foundation for this holiday day. Perhaps we forget that it was a poor young couple who made a difficult journey and had no safe place to stay. Or we romanticize the shepherds and miss that they were viewed as second-class citizens who lived with their animals, didn’t maintain the religious laws of cleanliness, and were not welcome in most social circles. We mistakenly refer to the magi as “kings” but they were foreigners of a different religion and culture. Then, much like today, foreigners of a different culture and religion were viewed with suspicion, not a warm welcome. The bottom line is this: the sacred stories of Christmas are about those who were outsiders, down on their luck, without any redeeming social value. Yet, they were the ones who are the central characters for the beginning of our stories about the birth of Jesus.
The sacred stories of Christmas are meant to remind us that hope is born in the lives of people who are struggling, facing hardship, and live in fear. These stories are the most significant when we allow the darkness of our lives to be filled with light – even if that light is just the glimmer of a single star. The depth of meaning in the stories of Christmas is most relevant for those living on the edge who aren’t sure what may come next.
I think the meaning of Christmas is captured in a sermon from the fifth century by Peter Chrysologus, a bishop in Central Italy, who wrote: “God saw the world falling to ruin because of fear and immediately acted to call it back with love. God invited it by grace, preserved it by love, and embraced it with compassion.”
The essence of the sacred stories of Christmas is that because the world is falling apart, because people experience pain and tragedy, because wrapped in fear we fail to do better, grace calls again and again to be people of love and compassion. The hope of Christmas is that struggle and strife aren’t the end of the story. Instead, something new can be born into our world that calls us to do better and to be better.
Yes, so this is Christmas! It’s not plastic sentimentality sold to us by commercial opportunists but it is the opportunity to allow hope be born anew. It is the hope of Christmas that bring us out of fear to a new faith that sets things right.
As I think about the pain and tragedy in the world and in the lives of people I know, it seems to me that we need Christmas more than ever. Indeed, we need to allow our lives to be transformed by love and compassion for the healing of the world.
On these last days before Christmas, I look for this hope as I pray the words of the ancient hymn: O Come, Emmanuel!
© 2017, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.