There’s nothing like Christmas to bring out the kid in us. The anticipation of Christmas Day, of time with family, friends, good food, celebrating the birth of our Savior, sitting around the fire opening gifts and laughing, is one of the truly sweet moments in life, one of God’s precious gifts.
But, in the midst of the joy, anticipation, and excitement of Christmas, there’s something else. A tinge of sadness, of emptiness; bitterness to go with the sweetness. For some of us, this bitterness we feel may be associated with Christmases past. My mother lost her father when she was seven. My grandmother, who struggled mightily with her husband’s death, couldn’t endure the grief of Christmas morning, and stayed in her room when my mother was little. Every time I think of my mom as a little girl, sitting downstairs by herself on Christmas morning, opening presents alone, and missing her daddy in unshared grief, it tears at me. Every time.
For my sister and me, whose parents divorced when we were very little, Christmas was a reminder of family brokenness. Every Christmas morning I walked outside, waved goodbye to my friends who were beginning their day playing together with new Christmas gifts, and began the “great Christmas shuffle:” carted from Mom’s house to Dad’s house to Dad’s family in Fort Worth, the full enjoyment of the day lost in the chaos and palpable parental tension that Christmas always seemed to bring. Until I was in my very late 20s and married, I didn’t know that people actually sat around and just enjoyed being together on Christmas Day.
Even those of us with more conventional upbringings, for all of us, really, Christmas brings a more subtle form of bittersweetness. From at least Thanksgiving onward, Christmas is one big buildup. Decorations, parties, tacky sweaters, advent wreaths- they all point forward to this moment of excitement, and create an overriding sense of great anticipation. If we’re honest, however, anticipation is followed by disappointment. Think about that moment on Christmas morning: it may be after all the presents have been opened, or after you’ve eaten Christmas dinner. It may even be when you wake up on the morning of December 26th, and realize that it’s a whole year until Christmas comes again.
You feel it, don’t you? Sadness? Disappointment? A sense of unmet expectations? A lingering question: Is this all there is?
And, that is perfectly normal. In fact, I think that at least some of it is God-given.
We are living in an amazing age, the most incredible in history. The Church Age, the time between Christ’s first coming at Christmas, and His second. We are living in what theologians call the “now, but not yet” of human history. The Nativity of Christ signals the coming of the new day, the conquering of death, the possibility for you to live life to its fullest, in all its beautiful brokenness, and to enjoy eternal fellowship with your Father. Hope, joy, and peace are your gifts from God through Christ. We love them and rejoice in these precious, paradoxical gifts. William Willimon says these things are characteristic of the way God loves us: giving us gifts we thought we didn’t need, which transform us into people we don’t necessarily want to be-shipwrecked and totally desperate for our Savior, rather than the self-reliant (and self-delusional) people we fancy ourselves to be.
But, the hope, joy, and peace we enjoy now are only partially-realized gifts. A day is coming, an even greater day, a day when Christ returns, not as helpless baby, but as fearsome, conquering Lord, to make all things right. The fullness of Christmas will be brought to bear on that day. The gifts will be fully unwrapped on that day. The anticipation you now feel, followed by a tinge of regret and disappointment, is a Spirit-breathed reminder, and a sense of longing for the day when there will be no more disappointment, no more tears, no more pain. When little girls don’t lose their daddies to cancer, and kids don’t have to wonder what it would be like to have moms and dads who love each other.
The celebration of the first coming is a down payment on the second. Enjoy the blessing of Christmas, and revel in its bittersweetness. Allow that emptiness to lead you to a longing for home, and to gratefulness that the Incarnation of Christ is your pathway back to your Father’s house.