By John Ohmer
This time of year, there’s a dilemma many of us face in trying to embrace the blessings of the Christmas season.
On the one hand, we want to “feel the Christmas spirit.” We recall, fondly, the Christmas mornings of our childhood, including the joy of opening presents. We know Christmas can put us in touch with the deepest yearnings of our hearts and souls, tug at our heartstrings like no other holiday.
But on the other hand, we have a hard time hearing the “still, small voice” of the Christmas spirit amidst all the noise, shopping, parties, and pressures of the season. We fear creating Christmas mornings that are overly focused on presents. We know that Jo Robinson and Jean Coppock-Staeheli, co-authors of the book, “Unplug the Christmas Machine,” are onto something when they write that Christmas has been cheapened into little more than “a long and elaborate preparation for an intense gift-opening ritual.”
As little as fifty years ago in this country, Christmas was celebrated much like Thanksgiving: as a gentle, non-materialistic holiday centered around food and family that started December 25 and lasted 12 days, until January 6, or Epiphany.
Today, we get our first catalogs in the mail around Halloween, and now – mid-December, about the time our grandparents were starting to think about Christmas – we’re being told to “Hurry In” for “Last-Minute” shopping. And on December 26, newspaper ads will beckon to us with their “post-Christmas” sales.
Part of me laments what our consumerist-obsessed culture has done to Christmas; I feel like we’ve been robbed of something precious. But neither do I want to be the grouchy old man down the street yelling the religious equivalent of “get off my lawn” every year around this time; if there is one thing worse than empty commercialism it is joyless judgmentalism.
Is there another way? A way to avoid the emptiness and hurry of this time of year, and yet does not turn us into Scrooges?
I think so, and that’s to remember: that the pressures we feel are from the way our culture is currently celebrating Christmas, not from Christmas itself.
If we celebrate Christmas as it is described in the Bible, and not the oppressive “it’s the hap-hap-happiest time of the year” myth of Christmas our culture describes, we’d see that the first Christmas was full of hustle and bustle, too.
We tend to romanticize the Jesus-Joseph-and-Mary manger scene, making it part of a fairy tale celebration where the “cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus no crying he makes” and where everyone basks in the glow of candlelit adoration.
But read the Christmas story as it is presented in the Bible, and you’ll find a story that’s raw, mysterious, vulnerable, and even dangerous…which is to say it’s a story about real life. Our lives.
That’s right: the way the Bible tells it, Christmas is the story of a young, confused, engaged-but-unmarried girl giving birth to her first child far away from home. The way the Bible tells it, the Lord and Creator of the Universe enters the world not as a full-grown, power-flexing monarch in the capital of most important city in the world, but as a naked, dependent newborn in remote, unimportant village. The way the Bible tells it, shortly after Jesus’ birth, Joseph and Mary become political refugees, escaping to Egypt because they are warned that a paranoid king is plotting their baby’s assassination.
And yet it is that story – with all its hurry, confusion, and realpolitik – that is announced by the angels as “Emmanuel: God-with-us.”
What that means is the blessing of Christmas – the “good news of a great joy” the Bible tells us about at Christmastime – has nothing to do with whether or not we’ve had a good year, the material gifts we give or receive, or even our being surrounded by loved ones.
No, the blessing and rejoicing that is available at Christmas is the message that God is near.
We rejoice at Christmas in the knowledge that it is the nature of God not to remain distant in heaven but to enter into our midst – into our lives not as we would like them to be or as they should be, but as they really are.
Remember: Jesus’ first bed was not the satin sheets of the Ritz-Carlton of his day, but straw, in a feeding trough. A human heart does not need to be a clean, well-ordered, respectable place for God to take up residence in it: yours and mine will do just fine.
So this year, let’s take pressure off ourselves to create Christmas or observe it the way our culture tells us we should, and allow Christmas to be experienced the way it first was: Emmanuel: God-with-us; God in our midst, right where and exactly how we are.
John Ohmer is Rector at The Falls Church Episcopal.