It’s no question the Christmas holiday is difficult for many people. It’s as if the everyday garden variety perfectionism that eats away at our serenity on any given day goes into hyperdrive as December 25 approaches, and those of us who are most keenly aware of how we fall short of being “merry” are prone to suffer the most.
We are told that Christmas is about families, and those who are estranged from or who have painful relationships with their blood relatives feel the sting.
We are told that Christmas is about children, and those who are childless because of infertility or miscarriage or perinatal or postnatal loss or abortion or other untimely passing are cut to the heart.
We are told that Christmas is about peace on earth, and meanwhile men and women in our military who have come home and are perhaps the sole survivor of an attack carry the weight of survivor guilt that very few will ever understand.
We are told to that Christmas is about the Holy Family, and those of us whose families are broken by divorce, the single parents, the children whose moms or dads are in prison or addicted … we struggle to give our kids a sense of the sacred but can’t give what we don’t have and end up scolding while making cookies or on the way to church, keenly aware of the irony.
We are told that Christmas is about Jesus, and we think of that lovely Italian-inspired crèche scene. We don’t think about the fact that the baby Jesus would have been seen by his culture as a bastard child.
We know there was no room at the inn, but we don’t wonder why Joseph went there in the first place. After all, Bethlehem was his hometown, and was likely filled with cousins, uncles, maybe even brothers or sisters with whom he could have stayed. Maybe Joseph was estranged from his family. Maybe they disapproved of his betrothed, Mary.
We celebrate the birth of Christ on December 25, but very few people mark any remembrance on December 28, the Feast of the Holy Innocents. Most people probably don’t even know what that is. Following the birth of the “prince of peace,” King Herod was so jealous he had every male child under two years old slaughtered. I think Jesus knows a thing or two about what it feels like to be a sole survivor.
Did Mary understand that her little baby, born in such unusual circumstances, would one day die a brutal death, cut down in his prime? Perhaps, perhaps not. But the shepherds knew. I recently read that there is evidence that the Bethlehem shepherds were special. They were shepherd-priests who tended the flocks that provided Passover lambs – unblemished firstborn male lambs. Supposedly they birthed the animals in caves in the Bethlehem countryside that they kept ritually clean. To keep them from injury, the shepherds immediately separated the lambs from their mothers, bound them with swaddling cloths to keep the from moving, and laid them in tomb-like mangers hewed out of stone to keep them unblemished until it was time to be sacrificed. When the angel appeared and told them of the sign, they understood deeply that this Savior was to be a sacrifice.
It’s Christmas in America and all is merry and bright. We sing Joy To the World and have forgotten the reason for that joy has nothing to do with families or children or some idealized version of the nativity scene. That joy is about a gift for which every one of us, whether Christian or Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or Wiccan or agnostic or atheist, longs. Our deepest yearning is to not be alone in our shadows. When Christ was born, He was named Emanuel “God with us.” He and all the characters of the Nativity narratives are examples of the “shadow” side of Christmas. After all, you cannot have a light as bright as the Christmas star without casting a few cross-shaped shadows.
If you find yourself experiencing the shadow side of the holidays this year, take heart. God is with you. Joseph is with you. Mary is with you. They’ve been where you are and they understand.