We all have Christmas memories of one sort or another. Mine, from childhood, are rich and sweet, and centered by church. We'd begin Christmas Eve with a light family dinner and then be off to church for an early service when I was very little or an 11:00 p.m. service when I was a little older. There was something mysterious, and almost magical, about going to church in the dark of the night. We'd bring the candles used in the candlelight service home, light them again and put them on the windowsill. This was to say to the world that our home welcomed Jesus, I was told. Because my father often worked on Christmas Day, we'd open presents under the tree on Christmas Eve. During my few Santa-believing years, we were told that Santa came to our house first because he knew this about us! Not a bad way to think of things when you're four years old—as if God could bend to meet your family's needs. Stockings were for Christmas morning, along with some of those Christmas cookies that sat in rows between wax paper in that great big cookie tin. Those of us still at home would go again to church for a Christmas morning service, seeing church friends again. There was usually snow on the ground and time to play with new toys. Then we'd have a nice dinner when my father came home from work and a visit with grandparents living nearby. Nothing extravagant in this simple Christmas, just reliable ritual, caring family, the security and home of church, and a story that made sense of the world.
These are sweet memories.
As years passed, I realized that Christmas is not so sweet for everyone. Sadness at loss, worry over too little money for presents or for food for a table, concern over illness, homelessness, injustice and more can steal joy from many. Seeing so many give so much to others at this time of year, even welcoming some who are alone into their homes, and yet Christmas is still a mixed experience for many, like so much of life. Christmas brings both the sweetest and the saddest into view.
Strangely enough, maybe this mixed quality of Christmas is part of what keeps Christmas Christian in the end. For every time we rightfully wear our buttons or pass an email around that says we oughta "Keep Christ in Christmas," or "Remember the Reason for the Season," we're actually recognizing this truth. For the Christ we remember at Christmas came to us from a worried and temporarily homeless mother. He was born into political intrigue that would force his family to become refugees for a time. And he brought angels who made people afraid. And yet he was also born into loving arms, was recognized by strangers as the wonderful gift that he was (and is), and gave the same angels reason to sing.
This Prince of Peace, King of Kings, Holy Child of Bethlehem, Savior of the World, Little Child of Mary, Light of the World, Branch of Jesse, Son of David, Messiah, Emmanuel, Son of God holds in his vision all human experience. It's all with him already in the manger that night. It's with him in his ministry to come, in the cross, and in the open arms of risen body.
May we all experience the sweetness. But no matter how any one of us will experience Christmas, his Spirit can touch us. And it can open our vision too.