A Gloriously Dark Christmas

Bittersweet irony was always God's secret ingredient

The mix of feelings during the holidays can be as awkward as hearing Jingle Bells while on hold for the Suicide Hotline.

Interestingly enough, several friends have posted the hotline’s number on their Facebook pages in the past weeks leading up to Christmas. People are really hurting out there, and it’s not hard to figure out why.

Many of us miss loved ones with whom we’d be spending Christmas. On the week before Thanksgiving, I made a passing comment in my sermon about how some places at our Thanksgiving tables might be empty this year, so we should cherish every moment God grants us. As we stood for the closing prayer, one dear lady made a beeline for the door in tears.

Why? She’d just lost her husband and her grief was pulled to the surface by my word picture.

Another problem is our unreasonable expectations. We think back on magical Christmases of childhood, and nothing today is able to compare. We watch the Peanuts Christmas special, Rudolph, and Elf all the while trying to recapture the magic of the season.

But if you’re like me, it doesn’t really work.

That’s because much of what we remember is just an illusion. Our parents never told us how hard it was to afford all those presents. We never realized Aunt Bertha and Uncle Jim weren’t speaking to each other. We didn’t see mom in the kitchen crying because she knew her mother in law (your beloved “Nanna”) would find something wrong again with the stuffing.

Our sepia-toned memories were shielded from the family arguments and squabbles we now see up close in stark, vivid colors.

How do I know this is true of you too? Because anytime you’re dealing with people, you’re also dealing with problems. So those magical Christmases we remember never really existed. Our memories are just partial representations of what was really happening.

And what really happens at Christmas is always bittersweet. It was always about the ironic juxtaposition of peace alongside chaos, joy surrounded by heartache, faith smack dab in the middle of doubt.

Just look at how dark our best Christmas stories are…

Scrooge is visited by Marley and three other ghosts, who warn him to change his ways or be forever damned. Just to raise the stakes, Tiny Tim (not he of the ukulele) is destined to die unless Scrooge repents. So we’ve got a man threatened with damnation and the death of a small child. Sounds more like a fire-and-brimstone sermon than something you’d read to kids.

George Bailey’s about to go to jail wrongly accused of embezzlement and decides to commit suicide on Christmas Eve. You can feel the warmth already, right?

Do you remember the scenes of George with his family right before he runs to the bridge? He’s completely unraveled, screaming at his piano-playing daughter (understandable – the kid was irritating and needed lessons) and leaving his wife to pick up the pieces from his tirade. It’s raw, devastating, and more like a scene out of Eugene O’Neill than Frank Capra.

O. Henry’s Gift of the Magi has a couple so poor they sell their most treasured possessions just to buy each other gifts. And don’t get me started on The Little Match Girl – an impoverished orphan child freezing to death on New Year’s Eve? Breathtakingly dark stuff.

The first Christmas story is no less brutal. A young couple is forced to travel by their oppressive government while the girl is about to give birth. After delivering the baby in a barn, the family flees for their lives to Egypt to avoid Herod’s mass slaughter of male babies. Not so much “Peace on Earth” as “all hell breaks loose”.

God never truly meant Christmas to be as antiseptic as we hope for. Bittersweet irony was always God’s secret ingredient of the magical mix.

This Christmas, be reminded that any moment God can reach down and invade the darkness of your circumstances with brilliant light. Endure that darkness knowing it’s a prerequisite for sharing the Nativity with the likes of Mary and Joseph. And in the midst of chaos, embrace the peace of Christmas where it was meant to reign all along…your heart.

This Sunday, our church family will meet in a nightclub to worship and celebrate Christmas. We don’t have our own building, so we rent whatever’s available for our weekly services. Some might find that inappropriate, but I find it perfectly in character with the paradox of Christmas.

The room can get a little dark, so we always use their spotlight to brighten the stage a bit. Funny thing about spotlights – they call attention best to their subject when the room is darkest. If you really want to grab people’s attention, block out all the light you can. Then turn on just one, single light center stage. Every eye in the building will be drawn to that spot.

So darkness is a necessary ingredient so the light can point the way.

God takes advantage of the overwhelming darkness and turns on one little star, pointing the way to a stable. He lets his Son be born in a feeding trough, greeted by shepherds (the riffraff of ancient society), while animals did what animals do in the background.

Compared to that, a nightclub sounds quite cushy. But God’s sense of irony is on glorious display in our church. Each Sunday, people join hands to do something holy in a venue that seems less than sacred. And the contrast makes God’s light all the more dramatic.

Light in the darkness. Holiness amidst the commonplace. God cradled by human hands. Now that’s perfection.

Here’s hoping your spotlight is shining bright in a bittersweet, imperfect Christmas. Just as God meant it.

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