I found a letter to Santa I wrote when I was in a third grader at Oakland Heights Elementary School in Russellville, Arkansas. It was published in the Courier Democrat in a special section one Sunday in December.
That was the Christmas I brought ridicule down on my father. He got boxes of brown hair in the mail. Multiple copies were laminated and given to me or him. No one let him forget about it.
When Jackson was 3, my dad gave him a whistle for Christmas. We’re even.
I can’t get over what seems to be actual joy in that letter. Somewhere in the 30 years since then, the entire holiday season has become dreadful for me. It wears me out. I can’t even deal with all the happy people, the music or that super creepy Elf on the Shelf.
I’m generally a dark-hearted gal. I’m fine with that. It’s one of the reasons you like me, if you do, or don’t like me, if you don’t. But it’s not really something you miss. So a season irrationally committed to joy isn’t really my thing.
Earlier this week, I had to have some dental work done. As she was drilling in my head, I could hear the song Do They Know it’s Christmas. It was like the seventh circle of Hell in Dante’s Inferno. (How terrible is this song? The guy who wrote it hates it! I’m just sayin…)
But somewhere in all the craziness this year, one theme keeps popping up: the definition of Immanuel, “God with us.”
I saw it reading Nadia Bolz-Weber’s book Pastrix.
I was stunned that Good Friday by this familiar but foreign story of Jesus’ last hours, and I realized that in Jesus, God had come to dwell with us and share our human story. Even the parts of our human story that are the most painful. God was not sitting in heaven looking down at Jesus’ life and death and cruelly allowing his son to suffer. God was not looking down on the cross. God was hanging from the cross. God had entered our pain and loss and death so deeply and took all of it into God’s own self so that we might know who God really is. Maybe the Good Friday story is about how God would rather die than be in our sin-accounting business anymore.
The passion reading ended, and suddenly I was aware that God isn’t feeling smug about the whole thing. God is not distant at the cross and God is not distant in the grief of the newly motherless at the hospital; but instead, God is there in the messy mascara-streaked middle of it, feeling as shitty as the rest of us. There simply is no knowable answer to the question of why there is suffering. But there is meaning. And for me that meaning ended up being related to Jesus – Emmanuel – which means “God with us.” We want to go to God for answers, but sometimes what we get is God’s presence.
It was there again in Jamie Wright’s post about her Christmas Tree that fell over. (I have to admit, I’m particularly drawn to people who’ve experienced fallen trees in any form)
I knew it was going to fall over — I wasn’t surprised at all when it did. Not even an hour before it made its big dramatic flop to the floor, I took pictures of it tilting off to one side, star drooping like a spent balloon. I kept asking no one in particular, “Do you think that tree is okay? Does that look right?” I knew it was all going to fall apart eventually, but I didn’t know how to fix it and I knew I couldn’t shore it up on my own, so I backed away, fingers crossed that it would last until Christmas. But it didn’t. It couldn’t. So we were all just waiting for it to go down.
Trees fall over sometimes. They just do.
It will never return to its former glory, that is certain. This poor tree is just gonna have to be a little shabby and a little wonky and a little bit lonely looking with so few ornaments left on it this year. But, to be honest, it warmed my own shabby, crooked soul to see it there, waiting for me this morning. That dinged and droopy star calling my name, whispering a truth that I needed badly to remember…
Jesus didn’t come to fix it all. He came to be with us in it all.
God with us.
And once more in the words of Frederick Buechner:
What keeps the wild hope of Christmas alive year after year in a world notorious for dashing all hopes is the haunting dream that the child who was born that day may yet be born again even in us.
Maybe Sarah Bessy is on to something when she writes about the tension and longing of Advent.
I’ll be honest, I’m not feeling the joy much these days. I’m learning to be okay with that. I’m learning to be okay with the sadness that rises, with the frustration of a broken world, with longings still unfulfilled, with the profound ache in my human heart for all things to be restored, to be redeemed, to be whole. I’m learning to turn towards the third way: the one that holds both the joy and the sorrow.
I’m not always a quick study. Sometimes I have to beat over the head with something before I get it. This year, even in my general state of malcontent, I keep getting the message of what it is to have God with us.
So maybe Advent works because it just does, even on a dark heart like mine. By making a space, I can make room for possibility. Maybe there really is comfort and joy if I allow myself to be more open to wonder and mystery.
But I can tell you right now, I’m never gonna like Christmas music. Seriously? The “clanging chimes of doom?” LordHaveMercy.