Nate read a story the other day about a little girl turning eleven who realizes she is not simply eleven, but all the ages she has been.
I have this feeling, especially at Christmas. I am this nearly 47 year old mother of four, wife, and daughter. I am immersed in the memories we are creating in our home. I am present as we bake cookies and hide elves. I am fully immersed in watching Maddie absolutely squeal in delight at a surprise letter from Santa the elves brought her. The excitement of Nate in helping to decorate and transform our house is contagious.
The sights and sounds of the season draw me in every year.
And yet…as I sit in the coffee shop for a few minutes, memories strike me and suddenly I am a child again. Listening to Christmas playlists, I am taken back to the house of my childhood. The sights and sounds of New Mexico fill me with a mixture of delight, sentimentality and sadness. A yearning for what is just not quite right now.
My Mom amazed me in her ability to create an atmosphere. She loved to say that the house came alive every Christmas; it puffed itself up and delighted in all the trimmings. She created a wonder-filled home. The culmination came on Christmas Eve as we gathered around an enormous table filled with a meal we only ate once a year. Tiny cinnamon rolls, potatoes au gratin, asparagus, and a beef tenderloin which melted in your mouth. Shrimp cocktails and cheese sticks and egg nog and other treats started the evening.
My grandparents would arrive and we would sit around munching on cheese sticks and talk. I wish I could remember more clearly the conversations. I simply remember the atmosphere. Everyone dressed up in Christmas sweaters and my velvet dress. Shoes shined. Eventually we would move from couches to the table and have a long dinner. There was no rush, and even as a child I don’t remember wanting to rush away from the table. There was something magical about the table and the conversation.
Eventually we would move back to the couches and sometimes act out the story of Joseph and Mary and baby Jesus. In our bathrobes with towels on our heads, held tight with belts. Some years Dad would simply read the story.
We were waiting for the culmination of the evening. We would wander outside and watch the cars slowly creeping by, only parking lights lit, seeking out the luminaries through the neighborhood. Before the dinner and the cheese sticks, before the dinner preparations shifted into high gear, we would have lit hundreds of luminaries. On the roof of the house, lining both sides of the sidewalk. Our neighbors had done the same. There were no electric lanterns…we lit every tea light in those paper sacks.
Christmas was filled with the feel of crisp, cold air and the smells of candles and meat roasting, of cinnamon and nutmeg topping egg nog.
Still…the culmination was loading up in the car late in the evening and heading to the midnight mass at St John’s Episcopal church. Walking in with only whispers, trying so hard to stay awake. The room filling with more and more people dressed in velvets and reds and greens, and then suddenly the music beginning and the room filling even more with sounds and voices. Filling with the word proclaimed.
“Unto us is born…”
“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!”
“God has come. He is among us!”
I don’t remember if I ever fell asleep on the drive home. I remember getting to open one present on Christmas Eve. I remember strict instructions not to come down by myself, but wait until Dad came and brought me to he and Mom’s room to wait for my brothers so we could all come down together. I remember the anticipation. We didn’t have Santa Trackers, although I do think there was some type of tracker on television.
Laying in my bed. Trying so hard to fall asleep, and finding it so difficult. After midnight service, it had to be well after 1am. Then….waiting….hearing footsteps on the roof and maybe bells? This didn’t happen every year, I don’t believe, but I know it happened at least once because it is firmly in my imagination of those days.
All of these memories, filling my mind as I sit here in a coffee shop, taking me through the events of the evening and on into Christmas morning with egg casserole for breakfast and presents opened, all of these memories bring me joy. Delight.
And yet, as I follow them, eventually they bring me to a deep sadness.
These memories are filled with a woman who absolutely filled a room with her presence. Dad somehow brought to life what she designed, and they were a great team. Dad was content, though, to stomp on the roof and jingle bells, to create the egg nog delights and enable the lighting of hundreds of luminarias. He was happy to quietly make it all happen….but
Mom orchestrated the whole event. And it was an event.
And now she has no idea. She has no delight in the music and the sounds and the sights. She no longer orchestrates. She trusts like a child in my Dad who helps her to know how to sit and stand and eat. She grasps tightly to his hand and she hums or whistles. She speaks, but the words have no cohesion or meaning.
She, who would greet the guests at the door with a smile and warmth which immediately set the tone, now is unaware when people come to visit. She no longer knows us. She cannot delight in the the grandchildren who carry so much of her character and strength and humor with them. And they cannot know the strength of this woman who directed and orchestrated so much of my history.
And so, in the midst of delight in the laughter of Maddie and the anticipation of all the kids for Christmas morning, in the midst of the sounds and sights and tastes of our Christmas, there is a deep sorrow and longing for something more whole. There is a longing for the true peace of Christmas, for a world ruled with truth and grace.
There is alongside the joy and hope, deep awareness of brokenness. And that brokenness and loss does not detract from the joy and hope: it amplifies them. That longing for all to be made whole is there because joy and hope have been tasted. I wouldn’t know to long for a woman filled with grace and elegance and wisdom if I only knew her in her Dementia and confusion.
We are marked by Eternity. The reality of Christmas moves us deeply because we have tasted of hope and joy. Some years Christmas may be difficult because the sorrow is more present, and the longing fills us to the point we have to fight back tears sitting in the coffee shop…but that longing is holy. That longing is the mark that we are created for something more than just what is in front of us.
Christmas is the proclamation that there will be healing and restoration. So, if you sit next to a parent who no longer knows you. If you sit next to an empty seat of someone no longer with you. If you sit in a home where stress and sorrow demand your attention more than joy and hope. If you simply do not know what tomorrow holds, and the stress of a very confused and chaotic world has exhausted you…listen to that longing for something true. And hear:
And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” Luke 2
Listen: that is not some quaint story of the baby Jesus, cute and tame. That is the story of God wrenching open our reality and stepping. This is what we wait with held breath for, this is what we seek in this Advent season filled with chaos in our world and brokenness as far away as those we love. This is God stepping in to our brokenness and promising healing and hope.
Sing the songs this Christmas. Bake the cookies. Let your children delight in all the wonder of the season…and hold tight the truth that this is the story that changes everything. Do not miss the enormity of this truth: God became man. Take all your sorrow and longing, all your delight and joy and remember that you are remembered and loved by. God willing to become man to save you.
“Christmas itself is by grace. It could never have survived our own blindness and depredations otherwise. It could never have happened otherwise. Perhaps it is the very wildness and strangeness of the grace that has led us to try to tame it. We have tried to make it habitable. We have roofed it in and furnished it. We have reduced it to an occasion we feel at home with, at best a touching and beautiful occasion, at worst a trite and cloying one. But if the Christmas event in itself is indeed – as a matter of cold, hard fact – all it’s cracked up to be, then even at best our efforts are misleading.
The Word become flesh. Ultimate Mystery born with a skull you could crush one-handed. Incarnation. It is not tame. It is not touching. It is not beautiful. It is uninhabitable terror. It is unthinkable darkness riven with unbearable light. Agonized laboring led to it, vast upheavals of intergalactic space, time split apart, a wrenching and tearing of the very sinews of reality itself. You can only cover your eyes and shudder before it, before this: “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God… who for us and for our salvation,” as the Nicene Creed puts it, “came down from heaven.”
Came down. Only then do we dare uncover our eyes and see what we can see. It is the Resurrection and the Life she holds in her arms. It is the bitterness of death he takes at her breast.”