It’s taken me about 45 Christmases, but I think I’m finally ready to accept and admit and make my peace with the fact that I am not very good at wrapping presents. When I begin, I always envision this beautiful box wrapped in brightly colored paper—it has smooth sides and sharp pointy corners, and paper edges that line up. The pieces of tape are just the right size for what they are holding together. The bows curl properly and stick where I put them, and the ribbons don’t have little kitten bite marks on the ends, and even the handwriting on the tags is relaxed and pretty–not a string of letters crammed together in a tiny space and then smudged before the ink gets a chance to dry.
Each present looks, well, presentable, with an outside that is worthy of its inside, which is intended to be—or at least is offered with–Love.
At Christmastime we can easily get caught up in the idea that everything has to be perfect. We have our traditions, and we love them. We also have expectations—and we try to live up to them. The way we decorate the house, plan the meals and get the groceries, keeping everybody’s favorites in mind. We try to choose the gifts we buy thoughtfully and well, wanting to find just the right things for just the right people. There’s a lot of heart, a lot of love in that. We do everything we can—and some of us have lots of lists—as we try to create the right conditions for what we hope will be a wonderful time with family and friends. We want to create moments full of memories. And maybe it will turn out that way. Or maybe Uncle Paul will back his car into the neighbor’s Jeep, or our siblings will argue about sports or politics or long-buried hurts. The potatoes might burn and the ham could be dry, and someone might forget to bring the salad…again.
Sometimes what we plan for and what we get are two different things. And still, because of who God is and how God loves, Christmas comes anyway.
We tend to think of Christmastime as “the most wonderful time of the year” and yet it has also this uncanny—and unsettling–ability to point out everything in our lives and in our world that feels less than wonderful. If we’re hurting, if we’re sick, if we’ve lost someone dear, if we’re worried about our finances or our families, Christmastime can shine a light on our pain, reminding us of the sparkle we don’t feel, the hope we feel outside of, that seems beyond our reach at the moment. Instead of feeling the happy excitement of the season, on difficult years we can feel out of sync and sad. We can try to put on a happy face and go along with all the festivities, but we might not really feel it so much in our hearts.
That’s an awful thing to feel at Christmastime, and if you’ve ever struggled through anything at the holidays, you probably know what I mean. But the good news is that—no matter where we are or what we feel on a given year—Christmas comes anyway. No matter what’s happening in our lives and in our world. Emmanuel—God with us—arrives because God always brings light into our darkness.
Today our scripture reading is the much-loved passage from Luke that tells of the birth of Jesus and how the angels appeared to the awestruck shepherds. Can you imagine the Light of God breaking into your reality in such a shocking, unannounced way? You’re putting on your jammies or turning off the porch light, or sitting here quietly in the pew, and suddenly, “The glory of the Lord shines around you.” Talk about an interruption, a reality shift! How would our minds even begin to process that? And I wonder what would the light itself would feel like. The glory of the Lord, this indescribable, otherworldly Emmanuel Light breaking in, shining everywhere, illumining everything. Would it be blinding, like the light that interrupted Paul on the road to Damascus? Would it have a different texture or hue than the light we’re used to here? Maybe there’s more gold in it. Maybe it has more substance. Maybe it feels like Love.
From the moment the Light breaks into their reality—Emmanuel!–the shepherds get swept up in an adventure far greater they anything they could have ever planned for themselves, and even after they see the Christ child with their own eyes, their wonder continues. The story tells us, “they made known what had been told them about this child”—that he was the Savior, the Messiah, the Lord—“and all who heard it were amazed by what the shepherds told them.” It’s hard to imagine them going back to their quiet life on the hillsides after a life-changing and world-altering experience like that.
And what about Mary and Joseph? Certainly they hadn’t planned for the baby to be born while they were so far from home. Most likely they’d thought they could get back in time, so Mary could be with the women of her family, receiving their care and comfort as she prepared to become a mom.
Most of Christmas cards we share don’t tell the whole story. The cards show the story’s happy ending, when the heavenly peace of God’s light has arrived and everything is shining with wonder and love. The cards don’t show us the darkness and the struggle that went before, the condition of the world, the state of hearts and minds just before the Light breaks in. We see the transformation, but not the process. Even though it makes for a less-than-picturesque story, it’s an important and hopeful thing for us to remember: God brings Light into our darkness, whatever it happens to be just now, and God continues to do that across all time. That’s the story–the living, ongoing story–of Emmanuel.
I like the way Richard Foster writes about this in my commentary. When Mary goes into labor, there’s no proper, private room or even an empty bed, and she gives birth—which is never an easy process–without anyone helping or caring for her pain or comfort. (We can assume Joseph tried to help; the story doesn’t say either way.) And then, Mary didn’t have a comfortable cradle for the baby so she had to lay him in a feeding trough. And, after this whole ordeal, Richard Foster writes, “…in the middle of the night shepherds burst in upon them, shepherds who smell of woodsmoke and sweat and sheep, still shocked over what they have seen in the sky…They were not likely welcome intruders because shepherds were considered rough and dangerous.”
Richard Foster comes to a conclusion about this part of the Christmas story. He says, “The true Christmas story seems like something of a mess.”
But, messy or not, Christmas came anyway on that first miraculous night—the Light of God was born into our world–and it has continued to arrive in hearts the world over ever since. The whole story of God—from the earliest creative Word and the first emergence of Light, through the days of priests and prophets, then blessed and shared, taught and modeled by Jesus, and carried forward by people of faith all the way until today—the whole story has been the story of Light breaking into our darkness. This is what God does—transforms, heals, leads, loves—by coming to be with us, by bringing light into our hearts, our minds, our families, our situations, and our world.
Many years ago, when I was a little girl, I loved a Christmas special called, “The Littlest Angel,” which starred a young Johnny Whitaker (who was also on the TV sitcom Family Affair as one of the twins, you may remember him). The story was about a young shepherd boy who has a bad fall and suddenly finds himself in heaven. There’s a lot of activity going on in heaven just then; the entire place is preparing for some big event. The little angel winds up causing lots of trouble instead of helping with the preparations—he gets under the other angels’ wings and causes things to break and fall; everything he does to help turns out wrong. Sad and dejected, he goes off by himself and looks through the things he keeps in his special box, things he loves that remind him of home. One by one, he picks up and studies his treasures—the shell of a robin’s egg, a beautiful leaf, a blue feather, a special rock—and as he does that, he begins to feel more peaceful and comforted, as he remembers and enjoys the things he loves.
One day, the littlest angel discovers that the big event heaven is preparing for is the upcoming birth of the Christ child. He wants to give a gift but can’t think of anything suitable. He sees all the other angels making beautiful things and composing heavenly music, but he doesn’t have any talents that would enable him to make something like that. Finally, at a loss, he decides to simply share what he has. So he brings what he loves best—his special box full of its special things—and he gives that to the baby. And it turns out that God loves his gift so much that it becomes the actual Star of Bethlehem, shining news of the birth of Christ into to the world.
That’s why in good years and bad, even when things feel lopsided or awkward or imperfect, even if everything doesn’t go according to plan, Christmas comes anyway. God understands us, and loves and heals us, gladly accepting whatever gift we bring to the baby, no matter how small or unevenly wrapped it may be. Maybe we bring our honesty about our struggles or our wish for a gentler world. Maybe we bring gratitude for God’s presence or simply rest with an open, quiet heart that’s waiting on God. Whatever we are able to offer, the Light of God’s love will accept it with love and turn even our smallest kind act into something truly magnificent, something to light the heavens.
Merry Christmas, Friends.
- Luke 2: 1-20
- The Littlest Angel (on YouTube): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X6KhABs6d7M