By Tim Lien, Pastor
I am a connoisseur of lame, cold, and lonely Christmases. Some people can tell you if the brie is properly warmed or if the host sprung for Two Buck Chuck or a pinot from the Central Coast. I cannot, unfortunately. My palette is only refined in the area of yuletide ache and longing. My palette is only refined in the area of yuletide ache and longing.
I have a pedigree here – and I don’t mean to brag – but my family didn’t celebrate Christmas (or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa, for that matter). No gifts. No tree. Christmas mornings: like every other morning except with a buzzing sense that something might happen. It didn’t.
On Christmas Eve my six siblings and I would put on a make-shift nativity pageant for our parents. A terry cloth towel draped on my head, fastened with a Boy Scout belt. The light blue sheet couldn’t cover the grass-stained high-tops. Older brother as a sullen Joseph. Virgin Mary with glasses as thick as a glass-bottomed boat. A reading of Luke 2. To bed.
I knew what was going on in other homes, so I lied at school. “I got clothes,” I said in a crafted, dejected way. “A football. Roller skates,” said the wishful liar.
I collect them now, stories that is – an entire menagerie of lame and cold Christmases warmed by the real thing. Because Christmas as we commonly know it doesn’t warm everywhere. You’ve heard the old jokes: Why does Santa hate poor people? And why is Rudolph allergic to most of Africa?
Because Christmas as we commonly know it doesn’t warm everywhere.
I now read difficult, painful histories over Christmas; it’s my tradition.
Christmas 2006 was The Guns of August, by Barbara Tuchman. My wife was puzzled. “Read something happy,” she said. I can’t.
Christmas 2008 was The Years of Extermination, by Saul Friedlander. “Eat some Chex Mix, hon,” my wife encouraged me.
Christmas 2009 was Gulag: A History, by Anne Applebaum. “Lighten up, sweetie,” she said. I know she’s right.
This year my wife looks askance when I say I need a book for Christmas. “Christmas is not sad,” she says. She is right; it is not. It is decidedly not sad, but it must be said it enters into sad places – this “sweet cesspool” wrote the late actor George Sanders.
That’s what makes it so wonderful, this Word made flesh.
One of my closest friends endured the suicide of his daughter. On Christmas Eve I served him communion. We wept. “This is Christmas,” he said, “everything else is not.”
This same seemingly impossible warmth appears in Anne Applebaum’s gritty book (and other cold places):
Kazimierz Zarod was among the fellow Poles who celebrated the Christmas Eve of 1940 in a labor camp, under the guidance of a priest who stole quietly around the camp that evening, saying mass in each barrack. Without benefit of Bible or prayer book, he began to speak the words of the Mass, the familiar Latin, spoken in a whisper barely audible and answered so quietly it was like a sigh – “Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison – Lord have mercy on us. Christ have mercy on us. Gloria in excelsis Deo…” The words washed over us and the atmosphere in the hut, usually so brutal and raw, changed imperceptibly, the faces turned toward the priest softening and relaxing as the men strained to hear the barely discernible whisper. “All clear,” came the voice of the man sitting watching from the window.
All clear. My (our) God has come near. Merry Christmas. All clear. My (our) God has come near. Merry Christmas.
Come celebrate the warmth of the Incarnation with the Pacific Crossroads Church Plant on Saturday, December 19 (5:00-6:00 pm) in Pasadena. Sing carols and read scripture during a Candlelight Service. Location and details are listed here.