Christmas is a mess.
While we do our best to clean it up — with our crisp, meticulously folded wrapping paper enveloping all the dream gifts nestled beneath the tree, and that tree being decorated with such precision that it looks like it was copied and pasted straight off of a Pinterest board, and with the candlelight flickering on the mantle, making the wood-carved nativity dance in the glow — our efforts are in vain.
You can’t actually clean it up. It’s too messy.
Life is too messy, too unpredictable, and too painful to allow for illusions of tranquility.
But how we strive for the illusions still.
The mad dash to capture the perfect Christmas feeling starts earlier and earlier these days. Stores roll out the goodies before Halloween. Amazon Wish Lists are shared before Thanksgiving. Lights go up by the last weekend of November at the latest. Concerts and parties commence. Shopping days are counted down. The Elf on the Shelf and the Advent Calendar provide daily reminders of the coming festivities. There’s a rush of adrenaline at the end, and good thing. There’s still gift wrapping and gift hiding and plenty of credit-card inserting to do. We do not forget the sacred, either. Our celebrations culminate in the Christmas Eve service at the church where the hot cocoa and cookies bring an extra dash of sweetness to the incarnation, then it’s home to It’s A Wonderful Life, new pajamas, and the magic of Christmas morning.
If you do it all just right, you do get the feeling. It’s the warmth of the fireplace, the Home Alone soundtrack, the thick flakes of snow falling from the sky. We chase it because we crave it. We need it — the comfort and peace and joy that only Christmas can bring. The world is pretty scroogey the rest of the time.
We just need everything to be just right, for once.
But Christmas — and by that I mean the incarnation of God, not the peripheral stuff — is a mess. It’s scandalous. It’s chaos and pain and uncertainty and friction. We can wrap it up, peppermint spice it, and set it to a string quartet, but it’s always been a mess, and I’m starting to think we should simply embrace the chaos and stop trying to make everything so stinking perfect.
And I’m speaking as one who craves the tranquility and tenderness of Christmas as much as anyone I know.
It’s what we’ve been made to believe happened on that O Holy Night all our lives.
A chubby little baby’s hand, the shadow of which is flickering in the firelight off the wall of that solemn stable, as a robed organist ushers in the Messiah with all your Christmas favorites. A camel in one corner, Bing Crosby crooning in the other. Pious shepherds bowing and regal Kings from the Orient kneeling with exotic gifts. Mary, her face all aglow, fascinated with her new baby boy, fully aware of his divinity but barely haven broken a sweat, apparently. Dutiful Joseph, fresh off his role assisting in the arrival of God into humanity, allowing Mary to rest on his shoulder, basking in the glory of it all.
Are you humming Silent Night yet?
It’s the stuff nativity scenes are made of, and I love them as much as the next guy. Maybe more. I crave it, too. I sit and stare at a nativity set almost every year on Christmas Eve. I listen to the classics, sometimes even crying tears of gratitude. It’s a mesmerizing, beautiful scene to contemplate, all these years later.
The only trouble is, it’s all kind of bogus. It’s too neat. Too tidy. Not messy enough. The whole thing was not choreographed. There was no stage manager whispering into a headset mic, “Angels, standby…orchestra, lightly now…spotlight fade up on Mary…aaaannnnddd, ANGELS!”
I don’t think it was as perfect as we pretend it was.
This is a birth, remember. So can we dispatch of the notion that this was a tranquil, still evening? There was no Pitocin to induce labor and no epidural to numb the pain. Mary sweated plenty. She screamed out to God and anyone else who would listen. I bet Joseph was scared. Does the Joseph in your nativity set have a concerned expression or is he smiling? I’m not sure our nativities get much right.
I like how songwriter Andrew Peterson puts it, turning our nativity notions on their heads:
It was not a silent night,
There was blood on the ground,
You could hear a woman cry, in the alleyway that night
On the streets of David’s town.
And the stable was not clean,
And the cobblestones were cold,
And little Mary, full of grace, with a tear upon her face,
Had no mother’s hand to hold.
I’ll bet there was more than one tear. The emotions in those lyrics are profound, and nearer to the truth —
Elsewhere in the same song, Peterson writes that Mary was “the girl on the ground in the dark.”
Aren’t we all? Stumbling around in the dark on all fours, searching for some light. A single beam of hope would get us to the next day. The ground is hard, and we seek to rise. But for so many a crawl is all we can muster. The darkness is thick. We’re all the girl on the ground in the dark, waiting for Jesus to appear.
Maybe this year has been a difficult one for you, and you’re having a hard time getting into the Christmas spirit. The loss, grief, pain, and tension in your life are so great, it’s difficult to stare at your nativity set and imagine such peace exists. The twinkling candle is too weak a prescription for the difficulties you are facing.
Can I suggest that maybe what you’re feeling is closer to the original Christmas spirit than the mass-manufactured kind we peddle these days?
The arrival of God among us did not occur in a way that resembles an expertly carved Willow Tree nativity set. Sheep bleated and cows mooed and Mary yelled in agony and she bled all over the place and Joseph worried. The shepherds wondered in disbelief. The little town of Bethlehem was turned upside down. The whole world was turned upside down. And it didn’t happen with a tidy bow wrapped around the whole thing.
It was punctuated with conflict and hardship and discomfort and everyone simply holding on for dear life.
Our picturesque depictions do not only fall short of accuracy — they are nowhere close to reality.
So if you are feeling gut-wrenching pain this year, take heart. When the carols and shopping and twinkling lights don’t slake your thirst for peace, there is a deeper truth to Christmas that you may find quenches the deep desires of your soul.
This Jesus, He is for us all.
Not just for the cleaned-up ones.
As carved and perfect as we may try and seem, none of us really have it together. We’re more like the actual nativity scene than we are our well-choreographed imitations. We’ve got blood and sweat and fear and worry and confusion in our lives.
And so did the first Christmas.
Jesus was not just a little chubby baby in the firelight. You don’t have to feel out of place, or unwelcome in picture-perfect scenes that you fear your screwed up life might spoil. Hard feelings can’t ruin the Christmas spirit, because hard feelings were baked in from the start.
There was no disinfectant at the first Christmas, so there’s no need to try and rub it all over your life as you approach Jesus.
We may all be the girl on the ground in the dark…but Jesus is right there with us.
He is not intimidated by the tension and uncertainty. It is under such conditions that he chose to make his home with us in the first place.