You don’t have to have a debilitating disease to feel like the joy of Christmas has been lost. The older we get, the more we lament the “good old days” when our senses were overwhelmed with twinkling lights, jingle bells, sugar cookies, and so many cousins! If these are all the things we love about Christmas, inevitably we are going to lose the joy to adulthood – to overtime job schedules, traffic, cleaning, cooking, budgeting for and buying gifts, and mostly the tsunami of stress, trying to juggle all these to make everyone happy.
Christians want to recapture some magic by taking “time out” to dwell on the nativity and wonder at the miracle of Christ’s birth. Isn’t there a problem with this? Should Jesus be something we take time out for in the hustle and bustle of celebrating the holiday? Shouldn’t it be the entire focus of the holiday to begin with? Maybe gifts and parties should be the hour we take out of an entire month dedicated worshiping and giving thanks to God? This is nearly impossible in our society, no matter your intentions.
What happens if you can’t put up a Christmas tree? What if you can’t buy or receive gifts? What if you can’t go to any Christmas parties, and have to spend the holidays without any of your friends or family? What if you can’t bake cookies or drink hot cocoa? What if Christmas is just another day of the week?
This often becomes the reality for those suffering chronic illnesses, depression, grief, separation, relocation, and other misfortunes around the holidays. Are those the years they “skip” Christmas? Or does Christmas come anyway?
Can you still find joy when confined to a dark and quiet bedroom for all of December? Would you still find the spirit of Christmas if Jesus was the ONLY reason for the season? It’s a kick in the gut to face the truth: our traditions and expectations define the season. Take away our beloved rituals, and we will often find that Jesus’s birth simply isn’t enough to spark Christmas joy in our hearts.
I am not here to guilt-trip you out of your holiday festivities. Rather, I am here with a message to those who feel like the Christmas spirit is gone forever, especially in light of chronic illness, depression, and grief:
You are not damaged. You are not the Grinch. You are not a Scrooge. In fact YOU, in your sorrow, weakness, and suffering, are the very embodiment of Christmas itself. Everyone else, in their commercial holiday cheer, are the ones who have it wrong. YOU are the blessed one, oh poor in spirit!
See, the real story of Christmas is very bleak indeed. It starts with an unplanned pregnancy, and a fiancé ready to call it quits. It’s a journey through government bureaucracy, taxes, jealousy, and murder. It’s not about being with family, it’s a tale of leaving the comforts and protection of home, giving up a privileged life of luxury and power, and humbling oneself to a miserable existence in a feeding trough, with world full of people who don’t understand. It’s the story of loss, a lifetime of persecution and poverty, until death by gruesome and unjust execution. The story of Christmas – the story of Christ – is more accurately represented back in Jack Skellington’s Halloween Town than in Christmas Town. It is the story of humanity on earth – and it is a nightmare.
YOU, lowly shepherd, climbing through the muck and mud of your hillside, tending your obstinate and smelly flock of medical bills, dietary restrictions, and empty stockings, YOU are the real Christmas spirit. While the rich and wise delight in their distant sparkly star, it is for YOU the skies burst open with the glory of God himself, it is YOU to whom the whole host of heaven sing; it is to YOU, the trembling and terrified, that the greatest news of joy to all people comes first. It is unto YOU a Savior has been born.
You hold, in your sorrow and grief, the true meaning of Christmas that millions of festive worshipers can only dream of grasping. And you hold this treasure in a dry, cracked, and leaking earthen vessel, so that the power – the all-surpassing strength, endurance, and joy of life that you struggle for – can be proven to come from God Himself. YOU are the crude and empty manger, humble and lowly, where God wants most to be held.
I was raised in independent churches, so we never celebrated Advent. While I know little of the established tradition, I felt this year that Christmas needs a new place in my life. It deserves a long, slow, and deliberate reflection in the midst of a season when we are either tempted to feel depressed and grieved, and even guilty, about missing out on all the festivities due to health limitations, or try to use remission to engorge our spirits on all the superficial cheer we think we lost. The greatest miracle in human history is more precious to me in light of my own miracle, and I cannot forget what a gift and blessing has come to me, wrapped in Lyme green paper.
Please join me this year in a chronically ill journey through the Christmas season, waiting on the promises and anticipating the miracles of Christ’s life in us. Advent 2019 starts December 1.
Read: Luke 1, Matthew 1-2, Luke 2, John 1