I first wrote this reflection on the dual nature of Christmas in 2014 for The Epistle newsletter at All Saints Anglican Church in San Antonio, Texas. It has once again become relevant for me personally, and perhaps for others…
Christmas Day is a unique celebration – beautiful, joyous, family and friend-centered, delicious, spiritual, luminous, and sacred. Yet it can have a dark side, leaving us with feelings of betrayal. Perhaps it’s the year we discover that evil doesn’t really take the day off, or we find ourselves unexpectedly alone when the last child moves away or tragedy has struck. Our reaction might be like that of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his poignant carol: “And in despair I bowed my head; ‘There is no peace on earth, I said.’” But our loving God can intervene and heal this feeling of betrayal, and we can rediscover our hope and thus our joy.
I was first hit by feelings of terrible loneliness and grief four years ago. My mom had died on Thanksgiving Day. When the Christmas season arrived, my grown children let me know they wouldn’t be home for the holidays, and I also felt they were distancing themselves from the beliefs I had tried to instill in them. Then, there was the aching awareness of other faces who would be absent from the Christmas table, who had left us early or unexpectedly.
The church I was attending at that time had beautiful liturgies, but I couldn’t get past a wall of bitterness, and I simply stayed away. My prayers were mainly long complaints focused on myself and not on God’s grandeur, grace and comfort.
I wrote a long journal entry that began, “I hate Christmas.” I listed all the reasons I hated it, how it was false, a day of put-on cheer and manufactured happiness, greed, gluttony, materialism (not very original.) Where I thought that my eyes had been opened, pain was distorting my vision.
The following year when my niece invited me to accompany her on a trip to England over the Christmas holidays, I leapt at the chance. Basically, all I wanted was to get out of town, away from the phony anodyne “happy holidays”, so I overcame an extreme reluctance to boarding airplanes, to fly away from it all.
There, in the country of my dreams, I found myself visiting Anglican cathedrals and hearing unfamiliar British Christmas carols. I remember standing on a street in the city of Bath, which smelled of cinnamon, ginger and other spices from the hot mulled wine and pastries of the booth sellers. There were people smiling, faces glowing, wonderful street musicians performing, and a small chorus got stuck in my head, over and over: “Now why on earth should men be sad, since our Redeemer made us glad? Now why on earth should men be sad…” Suddenly I heard, or sensed, that still small voice, a whisper, in my mind, “Don’t ever say you hate My birthday!” I remembered, just like that, Why, yes, it’s all about You! and a feeling of joy, unexpected and irrepressible shot through me. This persisted, to the degree I was even able to board our return flight home without anxiolytics (proof that love casts out fear!)
If a cold, quiet anguish has camped on your doorstep this Christmas season, put it to flight with the knowledge that God’s love is eternal and vast, and it’s not a one day a year experience. We’ve been given an “unspeakable gift,” (II Cor. 9:15), our Lord Jesus Christ, Who is with us 24/7, Who doesn’t change with our moods and seasons. He’s reaching out to us, even when we haven’t been seeking Him as we should.
Longfellow, who wrote “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” had it far worse than most of us – he was suffering through the traumatic death of his beloved wife, a civil war rending the country, and worry over his son who had joined the Union Army against his wishes. However, he found his hope and faith renewed, and in the last verse writes, “Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: God is not dead; nor doth he sleep! The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail, With peace on earth, good will to men!” Believe it.