Christmas 2014…


This year I was surprised by Christmas. It wasn’t that the date crept up on me… like I thought the 25th was on Friday instead of Thursday… I have done that before. No, what I felt on Christmas morning caught me by surprise.

For the past several years, my approach to Christmas, as with most holidays, was that it was just another weekend day. For the majority of my life, holidays were  set aside for family time. At least the major holidays were. Christmas especially, was spent with family or extended family, with all of the routine activities and traditions gathered through the years…

Lugging the boxes of decorations out of the basement, or attic, or shed…

Decorating the house…

Finding then trimming the tree…

The presents…

The music…

The movies…

The food…

The nativity scene…

However, after my separation and divorce, and my children moving into adulthood, Christmas was just too depressing to even think of. So I pushed past all of it, even when the outward signs in the community tried to push back. I lowered my head, closed my eyes, and just trudged through to the second week of January. Eventually, I became pretty adept at becoming numb.

Scrooge…

…without the money…

This year, I decided to do things a little differently. I decided to personally commemorate Advent. (I wrote about my process and thoughts in the two posts previous to this one.) I allowed myself to look at the world around me and mourn its devastation, yet celebrate its beauty. I was determined to embrace each present day and live into the dissonance. As I did so, I felt a growing sense of just how much we need something, or Someone, to save us from ourselves. But also to restore our perception of and connection to the luster of Creation. We need a reminder of the value of simple things and simple ways. Of the common courtesy of simple human contact:

Making eye contact…

A warm handshake…

Kind and hearty greetings to one another…

Bear hugs…

A forehead kiss…

Tickle fights…

Reading and listening to stories…

Simple gifts thoughtfully chosen, given and received…

So…since I can’t change everyone else, I decided to try to remember to do those things. While I didn’t make it through the entire list…I don’t get many opportunities for tickle fights… I did try to be more intentional in my interaction with people.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

I spent Christmas Eve in solitude. I was invited to spend the evening and next day with my mother, sister, and a portion of her extended family. This is an open invitation every holiday, and I take her up on it many times. My children are in Kansas City. They are now living adult lives with adult responsibilities, and I am proud of them for it! These responsibilities require them to stay home this year. So I put on Handel’s Messiah and began a book written by a man about his father and step-son. Rick Bragg is the author. He was raised in Jacksonville, Alabama by his mother after she and her children left the children’s alcoholic father. Bragg originally wrote about this experience in “All Over But the Shoutin’”. Bragg’s extended family on both sides battled poverty, alcohol, and family violence to survive and carve out a place in the world. He tells his stories beautifully, in a way that is both unvarnished, yet respectful of the simple nobility he unearths in his heritage.

I quickly became totally absorbed by the book: “The Prince of Frogtown”. In one section, he paints a word picture of his father’s family home which was across a long ditch from an old church:

          “The ditch cleaved Frogtown (neighborhood nickname) into two realms, and two powerful spirits held sway, one on either side. One was old, old as the Cross, and the other had aged only a few days in a gallon can. Both had the power to change men’s lives. On one side of the ditch, a packed-in, pleading faithful fell hard to their knees and called the Holy Ghost into their jerking bodies in unknown tongues. On the other side, two boys, too much alike to be anything but brothers, flung open the doors of a black Chevrolet and lurched into the yard of 117 D Street, hallelujahs falling dead around them in the weeds. In the house, a sad-eyed little woman looked out, afraid it might be the law. When your boys are gone you’re always afraid it might be the law. But it was just her two oldest sons, Roy and Troy, floating home inside the bubble of her prayer, still in crumpled, cattin’-around clothes from Saturday night, still a little drunk on Sunday morning. They were fine boys, though, beautiful boys. They were just steps away now, a few steps. She would fry eggs by the platterful and pour black coffee, and be glad they were not in a smoking hulk wrapped around a tree, or at the mercy of the police. She thought sometimes of walking over to the church to see it all, to hear the lovely music, but that would leave her boys and man unsupervised for too long. Her third son (Bragg’s father) was eleven or so then. He could hear the piano ring across the ditch, even hear people shout, but he could smell the liquor that was always in the house on a Sunday and even steal a taste of it when no one was looking, so it was more real.” [i]

 

Just before the brothers get in the house, of course, they get into a huge fight, and their mother calls the police from a neighbor’s house. By the time the police show up, the fight is over, the boys are in the house, and the street is quiet.

I am struck by the imagery Bragg depicts of the ditch…the gulf… between his father’s boyhood home/family, and the church… while they were essentially neighbors, and could hear the noise of the others’ lives…there still remained a gulf.

On one side…

The violent chaos of human struggle for control and power, with not a little self-medication consumed…

While on the other…

The dynamic, teeth-rattling worship of a powerful, very present, in-charge God.

For me, it was an apt Advent portrait of the world before Christmas.

You see…

A bridge was and is needed to span the gulf…

Not between God’s wrath, to placate it, and our guilt…

But between our wrath and God’s innocence…

That bridge is the Incarnation.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

I awakened Christmas morning a little differently than I often do on a day off from work. Although I still hit the snooze button a couple times…I needed the alarm to ready myself for the short 2 hour trip to my sister’s… I noticed an inner buoyancy which was both unexpected and welcomed. Almost immediately, my mind wandered to homes with young children whose eyes snapped open at dawn sharing with the same thought:

“It’s Christmas!”

It only makes sense doesn’t it? The most innocent of us feel the importance of this day. In the words of Stevie Wonder:

Lookin’ back on when I

was a little nappy headed boy.

When my only worry

was for Christmas what would be my toy.

Even though we sometimes would not get a thing.

We were happy with the joy the day would bring!”[ii]

I thought of how the expectancy of Christmas Eve made the waiting of the long, dark night the perfect preface and counterpoint for the joy of Christmas morning. On Christmas Eve, a child’s imagination is heightened by the promise that:

“He’s coming…”

“He’s coming…”

Every noise becomes a reindeer hoof striking the roof, or the sliding of red cloth sliding down the chimney. In a similar way, the joy of the Incarnation was prepared for by the promises of the prophets followed by centuries of waiting, listening, and watching for the king that was to come. While some Christians often demean the value of St. Nick because they believe it detracts from the reason for a celebration of Christmas, on this Christmas morning I realized how valid the emotional themes were to the story of Jesus’ birth. It just depends on how you tell the story.

I walked outside to the back patio (I live in Florida, after all…), and the words formed in my mind with such clarity, a smile crept on my face:

It’s Christmas!

A Child is born…

God and humanity united in the deepest way possible…

…in a baby lying in borrowed manger…

With the birth of this child, it is a foregone conclusion that all the systems of human control and empire will be…must be…confronted. Shame will be confronted by grace. Guilt will be offered redemption. Coercive violence will be absorbed by this child in the cataclysm of the crucifixion. While hopelessness will seem to reign after his death, the seeds of hope, which are always hidden within hopelessness, will lie dormant in the darkness of the tomb until awakened to new life in the resurrection.

But it all becomes possible in Bethlehem.

Merry Christmas!

[i] Rick Bragg, The Prince of Frogtown; Vintage Books a division of Random House, New York, NY; Pg. 92-93.

[ii] Stevie Wonder, I Wish: Songs in the Key of Life

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