The Christmas season is upon us again, and for most people, including us, that means that life becomes a whirlwind of family, friends, and general merriment. It means that we have been to parties and observed time-honored traditions that bring our family joy. It also means that we have taken a couple of occasions to throw the door open wide and welcome all comers to celebrate with us:
However, this year more than ever, I’ve noticed a funny thing in the midst of all this joy-making. It seems like this time of year, when everyone is, at least in appearance, prioritizing family and community togetherness, we notice so much more the parts of family and community that we lack. It’s as if the light of all the holiday cheer casts a glare on the holes in our support system. I know people struggling with all sorts of forms of loneliness this time of year. People who want spouses and have none; people who were betrayed by the spouses they have; people who are mourning the loss of loved ones that should still be here. The list goes on. I know for me, I’ve been haunted by so many memories of my dead brother this season that it’s as if his ghost has taken up residence in the house. He is as much a part of my current environment as the presents under my tree, and his memories burst into my mind every day, begging to be spoken. One of my secret joys is having a friend who shares his name so that several times a week, I can at least say it out loud. I love the sound of it rolling off my tongue; it gives some little relief to the build-up of memories in my mind.
But it’s not just dead people who haunt us this time of year: it’s any perceived lack in family and community. All of our “holes” are magnified when seen in contrast to holiday cheer. The type of friends we want but don’t have. The family we wish for but don’t experience. The life we pictured but haven’t seen in reality yet. So many holes.
And I’ve decided that at least for me…maybe my holes are a hidden mercy. Maybe, instead of being a failure in the Christmas system, they point me to the true meaning of Christmas.
I was reading an Advent devo by William Willemon this morning, and he pointed out that everyone, even the “nominally religious” loves Christmas because it gives us a chance to celebrate our own generosity, to celebrate what we have to offer to the world, instead of what was offered to us by God. In one provocative passage, he argues:
We love Christmas because, as we say, Christmas brings out the best in us. Everyone gives at Christmas, even the stingiest among us, even the Ebenezer Scrooges. Charles Dickens’ story of Scrooge’s transformation has probably done more to form our notion of Christmas than St. Luke’s story of the manger. Whereas Luke tells us of God’s gift to us, Dickens tells us how we can give to others. A Christmas Carol is more congenial to our favorite images of ourselves. Dickens suggests that deep down, even the worst of us can become generous, giving people.
Yet I suggest, we are better givers than getters, not because we are generous people, but because we are proud, arrogant people. The Christmas story–the one according to Luke, not Dickens–is not about how blessed it is to be givers, but how essential it is to see ourselves as receivers.”
Now, listen: I love A Christmas Carol as much as the next person, and I love giving gifts. But I think Willemon might be onto something. At least, I’m pretty sure that at its root, the Christmas season isn’t about family togetherness or gift giving. At its root, the message of Christmas is that we were all poor, we were all in need, and we were all desperate for a Savior–a Savior that was given freely to us by a loving God. And I don’t think you can feel the impact of that gift without understanding the holes in your life. The lack. The deep, yearning need. The sense that all is not as it should be.
I have felt that lack this holiday season. I have felt needy, and I hate feeling needy. Not only have I felt the holes in my own soul, I have felt my lack of ability to patch the holes in others’ souls. I see people suffering and understand intuitively that I cannot meet their deep needs, no matter how many Christmas parties I invite them to. I can fill their stomachs with food, and their hands with treats, but their souls? I’m sorry, but I don’t have that in me right now.
And I don’t think I ever did.
I think I needed to be reminded of that. I needed to be reminded that I am not anyone’s Savior, I am not even my own Savior, but instead that I am desperately in need of a Savior. When I think of that, I begin to see my “holes” as acts of grace from God. Then, I begin to open my heart and let Him fill those holes. And He does in beautiful ways–and funnily enough, He tends to use those who are historically considered to be “the least of these.”
For instance, yesterday, a small two-year-old girl who was visiting my house snuggled up to me out of nowhere and sang to me. For no reason at all, she took the time to shine light into my soul yesterday.
Then this morning, I was approached by an Iranian widow who attends my church, and she handed me a beautiful scarf that she had knit for me. She has so little in her life. She is all alone in a foreign environment; even the yarn she used to knit was a gift to her. And she used that gift to pour blessing into my life.
When I don’t see the holes in my soul, I am tempted to think that little toddlers and poor widows have nothing to offer me. That instead, I should be the one taking care of them. I do try to take care of them, but my holes remind me that I am also needy. That we all are. And while we can minister to each other as best we can within our limited means, we ultimately are dependent on a Savior. We can’t fill our own holes, and we can barely patch up the holes of others, but, through God’s love, we can find grace and peace in the Savior He sent for us all.
On my own, I am needy, so desperately needy. But…unto me a child was born. And that child was a gift that I could never earn through my own merit. I understand that more at Christmastime, which is why I’m thankful for this needy season.