"The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death, a lgiht has dawned." Isaiah 9:2
I remember many years ago puzzling over why Christmas could be so hard for some people. Why couldn't people just "get into" the season? Why couldn't they focus on the real meaning of it, and forget whatever was hard? After several traumas, and some choices of my own (good choices, but not without consequences), Christmas took on a whole new feel for me several years ago. I set myself up for it. I had spoiled my kids and even spent my lifetime of Christmases caught up in the whirlwind of traditions. Suddenly, I was barely able to get out of bed each morning. My chioces about what were important for me and for my boys had left me living paycheck to paycheck, hardly able to make ends meet. Christmas made it worse, as I faced "celebrating" without the trappings I had come to love. I faced Christmas with no money, no energy, and no enthusiasm. Still I turned to the things I had always done: decorating, baking, singing songs, and even reading the Christmas story as a way to escape the sense that I was messing it all up. I have really struggled with Christmas for years now, having little sense of wonder and little anticipation of something wonderful in the holiday.
I woke this morning thinking about a terrible, stupid book I read by Lemony Snicket called "The Lump of Coal," about a piece of coal that is hoping for a Christmas miracle. Even an author as dark and vile as the author of A Series of Unfortunate Events can see that Christmas is a time for miracles. Why couldn't I? Most days I walk in a world of darkness. Oh, many of the people around me think they are enlightened, but I see through the facade. I have tasted some of the world's hopelessness in the loss of those dear to me, in the struggle to do what I think is important work, in my own struggle against the parts of me that terrify and shame me. Yet over the years, as I have tasted the devastating consequences of sin, I have also become more aware of something there that I know is real and dependable: hope. Not hope in me, because I let myself down all the time. Not hope in others, although I have come to love and appreciate the relationships I have and the kindness that people can show. I know deeply though, that my hope comes from belonging to the Most High God . . . of knowing I am His daughter and his beloved, and that even when I mess up big-time, He will use it all for my good and His glory. My hope comes alone from Christ, and everything else I experience that is good in the world is because of His hand at work upon it. In the darkest morments of my life I have sensed His presence and tasted His peace, knowing that I didn't have to understand what was going on or why I was hurting to know He was in control and loved me and was going to use it all. I know this, even if my feelings have been slower to respond to it.
A few people at the time of Christ's birth found this hope too. In the midst of a very dark time for Israel--with the rule of the violent, oppressive Romans--there were people looking for hope. Of course, they were looking for the hope that a ruler who would throw off the shackles of Roman oppression would bring. Instead, what a few found was a baby, some angels, and a star. In the midst of the dark of night, during a time of darkness in Jewish national history, in a dark and backwards place like the little village of Bethlehem, a sudden great light shone out. It was accompanied not only by a glorious angel, but by a heavenly host of them . . . enough to inspire fear in shepherds who regularly fought lions and thieves. It was proclaimed not only by a star, but by one bright enough in the dark night to impress some very well-educated, important men from faraway eastern countries. The only thing in that whole story that doesn't seem to shine is the baby, and yet in eternal eyes, he was the brightest of all, for He was God Himself. He would continue to shine through His short life: as he perfectly and respectfully obeyed His parents in everything and showed unusual compasssion for his age on the children around him, as He worked dilligently to help care for His family all the while studying scriptures and worshipping with passion, as He left His beloved family (surprising everyone) to travel and preach and care for the outcast and downtrodden, and as He exposed the hypocrisy and inconsistencies of the religious establishement of the day, urging, calling, chastising them back to true worship of the Living God. The reactions to Jesus were mixed, because he was light--the Light of the World (John 3:19-21)--and while some were drawn to it, many ran from Him or tried to extinguish Him like cockroaches when the switch is flipped.
As I awoke this morning and pondered all of this, I realized that my struggle to find purpose and meaning in Christmas has the same cause as the struggle of every person who has heard, saw, or met Jesus from the time He came here to earth until now. If I get caught up in all of the tradition, in pleasing my children, even in dutifully reading the Christmas story, even my best efforts to celebrate are like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). What God wants from me . . . what I was created for . . . was to live in relationship to Him, and then as an extension of that relationship to reflect His light to a dark world. If I want to celebrate Jesus' birthday, I need to do it by reflecting and celebrating Jesus Himself. It's not about conjuring up enough emotion or feigning devoutness to celebrate the season, Christmas is still about the same thing that it started as: renewing my relationship to God. I am grateful that Chrismas comes at the end of the year, because every year, regardless of my feelings I begin a new year reflecting on my Savior, on what He has given me, and on how and where I have strayed away, again, from Him. I have nothing that He really needs, but He wants me. All Jesus wants for His birthday is for me to give back to Him my heart, surrendering to the light and banishing a little more of the darknes