This post is also an article in this week's parish newsletter for St. John's, Decatur. To read the rest of the newsletter, click here.
Yesterday I overhead a conversation about getting ready for Christmas. A woman asked, “Have you finished all of your Christmas shopping?” Without hesitation, the man replied, “No,” to which I chuckled and interjected, “You didn’t leave any room for doubt on that!” Then, after a moment or two, the man added, “My sister does all of my shopping for me,” and I laughed even harder. As I face the annual Christmas crunch, the thought of passing that burden on to someone else is appealing.
The holidays can be stressful: presents to buy, houses to decorate, meals to plan and cook, parties to attend, and family members to tolerate. Sometimes, the holidays can be disappointing: waiting too late to order that gift, dropping and breaking a favorite ornament, burning the sugar cookies, sitting at home alone, getting into an argument at the dinner table. I wonder whether the pressure we feel and the disappointment we experience are related.
As a preacher, I too easily fall into the trap of believing that the Christmas Eve sermon needs to be one of the best I will preach all year. Not only will our regular parishioners be there, expecting something special, but those who only come once or twice a year will also be in the pews, and this is a rare opportunity for me to share the gospel with them. I worry that, if I miss the mark, those Christmas-and-Easter Christians will walk out the door, thinking to themselves, “No wonder I only come twice a year.” Of course, that misguided self-importance obscures the fact that people come to church for an encounter with God, and, although a decent sermon may play a small part in helping them find it, my words will not make or break anyone’s experience of the miracle of Christmas except my own.
Maybe the biggest fallacy behind all of our holiday stress is the belief that we and our best efforts are what make Christmas special. For a moment, set aside all of the work that you put into celebrating the birth of our savior and, instead, consider the story that we celebrate at this time of year. God comes down at Christmas in the form of a baby. He arrives completely vulnerable and at the mercy of a teenage first-time mother and her rough-handed carpenter husband. He is surrounded by barnyard animals and is laid down in a feeding trough. He is adored not by princes or priests but by shepherds. In every way, God is met with the plainest of circumstances and the most meager of offerings, yet that is exactly where God comes and meets us—right where we are, asking nothing of us and accepting exactly what we have to offer.
Christmas is God’s repudiation of the belief that we are responsible for our own joy. The Incarnation is God taking our nature upon himself—not because we are perfect but precisely because we are imperfect. It is our stress, our pressure, our anxiety, and our disappointments that God inhabits. Everything that is not the way we would want it to be is exactly what God assumes in the birth of Jesus. And he takes that brokenness upon himself in order that the meager, scarred, and sullied offering of our nature might be made perfect through that union. We do not make ourselves a vessel worthy of God; instead, God chooses us to be his vessel in order to make us worthy. Our joy, therefore, is complete because of God’s work and not because of our own.
This year, put down the pressure of the holiday season. No matter how hard you try, you cannot make Christmas perfect. Only God can do that, and God already has. Bring yourself to the stable just as you are. Come with your imperfections and let the baby Jesus receive them again. Look down into the manger and see that God has already come to meet you—not the you that you would want to project but the real you. The miracle of Christmas is not found in what we do to celebrate this season or what we do to get ready for the birth of Jesus. It is found when we discover that, in that miraculous birth, we have already been found by God.