In a hazy afterglow after Christmas, in the liminal space between the years, when every dying spark of cheer hangs as precariously on our hearts as the ornaments cling to dead and drying trees, we may find ourselves ruminating: was it a good Christmas?
In childhood, a good Christmas was decided by good presents. The year we got a Playstation? A good Christmas. The year I got the Ninja Turtle’s base? A good Christmas. Socks? Not so good.
But as I settle into not-so-young adulthood, the criteria becomes less self-referential and a bit more diffuse, shaped as much by the celebration itself as by the joys and sorrows of the year that proceeded it: the birth of a baby, the changing of life circumstances, the death of loved ones. All of these may contribute to a good Christmas, which we may want to savor well through the Epiphany, or bad Christmas, which we may want to forget before New Year’s.
There is a very real fear, I think, of having a bad Christmas. A fear that the trials of life could ruin this sacred time, a fear that our momentary faults and failures could eclipse the light of Christmas magic. Parents going through a difficult chapter may bear an especially hard burden, and may attempt to shield their children with ever more extravagant gifts or experiences. It’s a beautiful instinct, to try and insulate our children from the very worst of our experience.
I once heard someone say that the reason he didn’t believe in Christianity (or God, for that matter), was because that after life, death and resurrection of Christ, nothing really changed. Life went on before Christ just as it had before: people still died by illness or violence, the unjust still triumphed over the weak, and human history remained an altogether tragic story, up until this very day. In short, he argued, if God had come to truly come to save us in Christ, then only a cursory glance at 2,000 years of history would illustrate that God had failed. We remain a people in darkness (this person wasn’t very fun at parties, as you can imagine).
Pessimistic, I know. But there is a startling sort of moral realism here too. I just read about a neighbor who lost her 23 year old son on Christmas Eve. He was coming over to bake cookies and was shot by a deranged man on drugs. I read today about a hate-fueled stabbing at a Rabbi’s house on Hanukkah. I read stories of plane crashes and political upheaval.
In the face of all this, I have to admit I sometimes tempted to reconsider his argument. What has changed since that First Christmas?
Parenthood has taught me a lot about God. And since Jesus’s operative understanding of God was as Abba, of God as loving father, there is a lot to lean into here for some deeper theological understanding into God’s success or failure in saving us.
At this moment my two sons are sick with fever and cough. My wife and I spent most of the night awake with them. After a 4:00 a.m. version of musical beds, my older son was cuddled up next to me in my bed, coughing and sniffling, and my wife was with our younger son in our older son’s bed. And all either child wanted, in their suffering, was to be touched. When you have young children, you realize how dependent we all are upon touch, of how primal, how essential, how devastating, how healing that touch can be.
I think Jesus’ abba understanding was as much about God as about us. God became human, in Christ, so that physically, God could touch and be touched. An abstract deity, an existential transcendence, no matter how perfect and beautiful and good, cannot be touched. And therefore, it cannot save us.
God came to save us from within, from the center of our human experience. God became incarnate in Christ to touch and be touched. From the moment his mother held him in her arms, Jesus’ ministry is one of tactile intimacy: of eating, of washing, of feeding and fishing. God in Jesus draws us into this particular, concrete reality of relationship, a ministry of healing touch.
It’s why we are rightly called a Church, a Christian community. There can be no lone Christian. We exist in a web of relationship infused from within by God’s presence. It’s why the deep wounds in this web hurt us so much, emotionally, spiritually, physically.
Christmas is a memorial, a relived reminder that Christ continues to touch, and therefore save, this broken, tragic history in the same way: from within, through vulnerable and often unreliable human relationships, through the mutual binding up our wounds and the wounds of others, through the loving touch of an incarnate God, given flesh and bones in Word, Sacrament, and Community.
As I age, a Good Christmas is decided by this new measure. Not in the extravagant gifts I’ve given or received, but in the quiet moments at the heart-center of my days: moments of encounter, of healing touch, of forgiveness, of the mysterious, all-vulnerable, all-forgiving awareness of God’s presence, bubbling up from the center of all things.
This presence may appear to withdraw from us in times of suffering and stress, but it returns again and again, in our own lives and down through the generations, this “Beauty ever ancient ever new”, this unconquerable sun of divine light shining in a cosmos of darkness.
After the ornaments are packed away and the trees taken down, after whatever 2020 and the years beyond have in store for us, after old age, illness, death and violence have taken their toll, the light will remain, shining into the darkness, and the darkness will not comprehend it.