Your words were found, and I ate them;
and your words became for me a joy
and the delight of my heart,
for I am called by your name,
O Lord, God of hosts.
I did not sit in the company of revelers,
nor did I rejoice;
I sat alone, because your hand was
for you had filled me with indignation.
(Jer. 15: 16-17)
Sometimes, in the midst of all the run-up to Christmas, it's nigh impossible to catch the real Christmas. Not that I haven't tried this year, like every year. I've read books and devotions about the Incarnation. I'll attend a Lessons and Carols service. I'll consider the Christian meaning with which we invest what are essentially pagan celebrations. And yet while all of this is good, I feel like a minnow trying to swim upstream in a torrent of Christmas marketing and obligatory social functions and gift-giving. Sometimes, perhaps a little like Jeremiah, I can't sit in the company of the revelers but feel the emptiness of it all. I've been here before.
The best Christmas I remember was also the most challenging one for Juliana and I. A set of circumstances forced us to abruptly leave town for Christmas. We booked tickets for our 3000 mile journey, left tree and gifts and family, moved our foreign exchange student across the street to live with neighbors, and left. We settled into a mom-and-pop motel in a town of no more than 2500 people, strangers in a strange land. Exiles. It rained every day. Fog and mist enveloped us. Sheep moved in a meadow outside our window. We bought cheap paper Christmas decorations and stuck them on our walls. We felt alone, missed home, family, friends, and church. We waited. In the end, we did not return home until January 7th, just over two weeks later. Advent, Christmas, and even Epiphany were over. We missed it. Or did we?
Maybe that's the only antidote for Christmas --- for the false one, the cultural one that is destined to collapse the day after --- to be wrenched out of the place in which you find yourself and set down in a foreign land. All I know is that when you have been stripped of what passes for Christmas here and set down in a place where your focus is otherwise, Advent becomes a sober waiting, the Birth a celebration, Christmastide a long settling into a new reality. Unto us a child is born, Isaiah says. For us, a Child was born.
Scripture has its own way of working in us a new reality, of course, of being our antidote. It's just that sometimes it's so difficult to really hear what it is saying in the midst of all that swirls around us. We say "unto us a child is born" --- in fact, we say it every year --- and yet we behave as if it happens every day. But on at least one Christmas it wasn't like that for me. Removed from all the familiar traditions, it was stripped to its essence: a Birth. And if that Birth was so momentous then, how can I ever again pass by the words "unto us a child is born" and not be awestruck at the reality of the Creator of all poured into a little boy? This Christmas, though you may not like us be wrenched from your place and traditions and set down in a foreign place, you may find yourself in unbidden or at least surprising circumstances - dealing with the challenges of loss, sickness, or displacement, or in the midst of festivities with an ache and longing for something more. It's about the Child.
Really. Unto us a child is born. As Jeremiah would say: "Eat that." Revel in that. Be indignant about any Christmas that passes for a celebration of less than that. Sit alone and ruminate on the love of a God who poured Himself out for a world that will celebrate anything but His birth. Hold lightly to the traditions and trappings of this world's Christmas and fast to that otherworldly Birth. Step away for a time from the usual and meditate on a Love come down, that lives all year long. Rejoice, and be glad.