I wish you a Merry Christmas. But on this Christmas Eve Eve, before the tidal wave of culturally and liturgically mandatory joy sweeps over us all, may I whisper a secret. I wish you a Merry Christmas, but it is okay if it is not all merriness for you.
If your Christmas appears to be on the verge of a Hallmark card brought to life, perhaps this blog is not for you. I am happy for you. Your merriness makes me merrier. There no shame in exuberant joy! The lights, the food, the music, the holy story, the companionship of loved ones can come together these December days in a whirlwind of profound happiness. I have experienced that. I have been blessed with many truly merry Christmases.
This Christmas is will not be one of them, at least not in that unmitigated idealistic sense. I have so much for which to be grateful. And I am grateful. But this is also a year of mourning for me, too. My circumstances are imperfect, and I am a human responding to them.
This past Sunday I visited a conservative Baptist church in the United States. I am by ordination Baptist and by birth American, but only seldom called conservative. The pastor started his sermon in a place I found profoundly insightful, but veered into what I found profoundly blasphemous and hurtful. He began by saying we set ourselves up for disappointment when we place our trust in human things, and that Christmastime disappointments are rooted in trusting in things we cannot ultimately trust. Crass commercialism will not bring lasting joy. Amen, brother. Even seemingly nobler expectations around time with friends and loved ones will disappoint. Again, a harder truth, but a true truth. Only Christ’s coming itself can provide us with lasting joy. We must focus on that. I was still with him. But then he argued we are to blame for our own unhappiness, because if we truly had faith in Christ, we would not allow anything else to make us sad.
I am going through divorce, and after years of believing I was with someone who would love me forever, I am not. And it hurts. It has hurt all year. And in the onslaught of happy family pictures on lovingly sent Christmas cards, it is hurting even more at Christmas. I count my blessings. The first two are my children. Even while I am devastated by the loss of my marriage, I will not call it a failed marriage when it gave me the gift of the two greatest blessings I have on earth. I try to console myself, believing their love is all I should ever want or need. As a pastor, more broadly as a Christian, it is my vocation to love others, and I am blessed to receive back more love than I could ever give. Some of my Roman Catholic and Anglican colleagues who feel called to celibacy tell me that such love is more than enough. I admire them. But my experience with lost romantic, companionate love is nonetheless one of profound pain.
And yes, I believe in God. Yes, I believe a holy infant entered this world humbly to overturn this fallen world. And those are glad tidings of great joy. Shouldn’t I be ashamed of myself for daring to sit under the lights of my Christmas tree, beside the crèche, and instead cry quietly, feeling so profoundly alone? I’m a minister, after all. I should be a good Christian, the best Christian, and good Christians are happy during Christmas, no matter what. No. The impossible expectation that clergy ought to be perpetually joyful is an idolatry of clergy; the expectation that all people of faith ought to be to be perpetually joyful is an idolatry of joy.
The persistent idea floating around Christianity that a knowledge of the truth would lead the truly righteous to a endless high of smiles and optimism, right now in this earthly life, is a lie. A damned lie. It idolises emotions, mistaking the sensation of happiness for the author of true joy. It falsely condemns sorrow and the sorrowful, heaping religious guilt upon those who are already suffering. It allows the (self-)righteous to feel they are being faithful when they are lacking empathy.
The Christmas carol, “Away in a Manger,” succumbs to heretical nonsense with its simple assertion, “The little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” #docetism Sit down you blasphemous anti-incarnation hymn, and prepare yourself for some Bible Truth. The Bible’s single most succinct verse of Truth, in fact:
Did Jesus weeping mean he sinfully lacked faith?
Jesus wept. Baby Jesus screamed like a baby because he was a baby. Adult Jesus wept because he was a human. At every age, Jesus lived the human experience with its attendant sadnesses. If we believe in Christ the perfect example, we cannot claim that sorrow or weeping are faithlessness. Yes, the Bible tells us not to fear, not to weep, not to despair, but if we are to reconcile those commands with the idea of Christ the sinless example, we must see those verses as encouragements not judgments, as the hand of God rubbing our backs as we cry, not striking us while we are down.
The promise is not that we will never suffer, but that we will not be abandoned:
So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
Do we imagine the first Christmas was joyful? Of course.
But why do we feel so tempted to imagine it was only joyful? Perhaps Joseph and Mary cried as the inn doors closed on them one after another. Even the gratitude for being offered a stable perhaps was met with a teary-eyed sigh, sitting on straw, realizing this was where the birth had to happen. Why do we insist in our imaginations that the animals were silent, that the night was still, that Mary had no pain, that Jesus did not scream? Could it be that we are idolising every circumstance around Jesus’ birth rather than living into the more likely truth that this joyful moment came, like most human moments, in a whirlwind of mixed emotions?
This is not my first mixed emotion Christmas. Eight years ago, my own twins were born very early and spent weeks in hospital before we were allowed to take them home. And then on the 23rd and 24th came the Christmas miracles. First one daughter was sent home. And then the next. We awoke on Christmas morning, and it was the first day our two children were home. And we tired. And we overwhelmed. We did not, could not, cook an elegant dinner. Christmas is the story of a birth, after all. Joyful, of course, but exhausting and scary, too.
This Christmas will be merry and sad. It is not an either/or for me this Christmas.
We have no Biblical or historical reason to assume we know the day of Jesus’ birth. But I believe this is the best time of year to celebrate it anyway. The one we Christians call “The light” breaking into this world during this, for the northern hemisphere, literally darkest week of the year, is a perfect reminder that joy comes into our darkest times. But we don’t have to pretend there was no darkness to celebrate the light.
May you have a merry Christmas. May you feel joy even if, maybe especially if, this year’s merry comes in a mixed emotion package.