During my various Christmas dinner parties, I always ask my guests about their favorite Christmas traditions or memories. Some of the stories have been very memorable! But this year, my own memories have often migrated to thoughts of my aunt and uncle who used to join us for most family Christmas celebrations.
When I was younger, my view of Aunt Kathleen and Uncle Kevin was a self-centered one: they were the extra adults who showed up with more gifts for me. As I grew older, I felt bad for them because they never had as many gifts to open as we did. As you can see, it was all about the stuff for me. I don't think I ever considered their point of view regarding the holiday. As we grew older and they grew frailer, they came with my aunt's oxygen tank in tow, a silent reminder of her battle with emphysema. I was an adult when one year my aunt really surprised me with her gift--a beautiful diamond and ruby ring she had designed while living in Europe as a young woman. I was floored by her generosity. A few years later, she gave me her set of garnet-colored champagne flutes. These gifts are regular reminders of her because I wear the ring every day and I use her champagne flutes every Christmas.
But her real legacy to me was not in any material thing. It came through the first Christmas we had without her.
That was the year my second niece, Claire, came home from the hospital. She had been born two days earlier and we were all eager to welcome our newest family member. Her older cousin, Natalie, was the first baby in our family. She was just starting to walk and was intensely curious about the crying bundle that we were all fussing over on Christmas Day. Uncle Kevin was with us, but he remained in the background until we noticed he was silently crying. He was a stoic war veteran, so his show of emotion was startling. Through his tears, he blurted out: "I miss her so much."
I could have slapped myself silly! Why hadn't I considered that this was his first holiday without Aunt Kathleen?! His grief in the face of our joy about the baby was especially stark. At that point, I vowed to try to remember important milestones like this for others. I haven't always been remarkable on that score, but my uncle's palpable grief that Christmas has never left me.
As the years rolled on and I found myself in their role as the visiting aunt, I thought of Aunt Kathleen and Uncle Kevin with a new appreciation. Despite her health battles, they faithfully got in the car each year and traveled to us. They wanted to be a part of our family celebrations even when it wasn't easy to do so, or when we kids were too full of ourselves to really notice them. It never occurred to me then to wonder if they preferred other plans or had ever had hopes for a different kind of Christmas. Now I think I know the answer, but with that awareness comes the recognition that they came anyway.
I learned that lesson, one that I didn't want to learn, as I continued to be the roving aunt visiting my sister's families. Not that I didn't love being with them, but like everyone else, I had certain expectations of the holiday. And as I explained in a recent interview for the Revive Our Hearts radio show, it took this experience for me to consider the expectations of others around me:
I remember the difficulty of lining up my expectations with what God was actually doing, and thinking, “This isn’t good, God. How did You allow this to happen?” And it took a couple of years, I can remember, of having Christmases that were good, they were ... good, but they were tough, too, where I would tear up and then put my make-up back on and go out and be with people, because it wasn’t exactly what I expected.
I could have sat down and said, “I don’t like this, God, and I’m not going to celebrate You, which is really an awful thought of self-pity—on Christmas day? That’s ridiculous!” Or I could say, “Why has God allowed this opportunity issue in my life? Could it be to turn my focus outward?”
I had never realized how many other people were in the same situation on Christmas day. There were plenty of people who found themselves alone for whatever reason, and it gave me an opportunity to think through, “What could God want with this, what could He be directing my gaze to?”
The irony of the first Christmas is that no one was expecting it to happen the way it did. No one expected that God would rescue us by becoming one of us, living in our frail flesh, and experiencing our full range of human experiences and emotions ... but without sin. That humble day has now become so festooned with commercialism, alternate theologies (cough, cough, Santa), and crusty layers of tradition that it's hard to recognize. But then human beings always have had a tough time recognizing God at work. The gospel of Luke opens with the Lord unexpectedly visiting two couples, one older and one only betrothed, with shocking news of conception. It concludes with the resurrected Jesus appearing among His startled disciples, who were frightened by his appearance. The work of God is never readily apparent to finite creatures.
So this Christmas, my prayer is for all who have a Christmas script in their heads that doesn't play out like they imagined. This is for my friend who is a new widow this Christmas. This is for another friend who still mourns her mother. This is for those friends who wrestle with infertility or wait for God to turn around their wayward children. It's also for happy friends who are planning weddings, buying new homes, starting new relationships, or waiting for the contractions to start--people who are happy in this present season but who will also know disappointment one day. For every joy and every pain are the backdrops to the artful work of faith the Lord is creating in our lives for the praise of His glory.
The angel Gabriel told Mary that nothing is impossible with God (Luke 1:37). Then her cousin, Elizabeth, told Mary, "Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!” (Luke 1:45 NIV). Those two statements are as true today as they were for the first Christmas. Whatever seems impossible to us is nothing to a powerful, sovereign God who lives outside of time and space. More importantly, we are blessed when we put our full belief and trust in what the Lord has said will be accomplished. Those incredible promises of mercy, everlasting love, full and unbroken fellowship are more solid and trustworthy than anything we will tangibly experience this holiday.
Hallelujah! For unto us a Son has been given, the Prince of Peace!