I come from sturdy people. I say this, not in a spirit of bragging, but simply as a statement of fact. They were blue collar folk — farmers and ranchers, mostly. They knew the satisfaction of a hard day’s work. They knew about tilling ground, planting seed, tending orchards year after painstaking year, harvesting, sorting, transporting produce to market, and selling the fruit of their labors directly to those who would take it home for their tables.
My people knew about difficulty. They found ways to squirrel away in years of abundance and endured numerous lean years. They survived droughts and labor shortages. When blight hit our orchards, they pivoted to ranching and cattle, taking what came to them, rolling with the punches that life inevitably brought.
In a similar way, Christmas strikes me as a sturdy holiday. Despite all our attempts to co-opt it for our own purposes — retailers seeking to make a fast buck on the consumerist addictions of our society with the seemingly endless barrage of holiday catalogues and sales, the millions of miles of twinkling LED lights giving an impression of perpetual daylight, the gaudy mechanical snowmen and giant inflatable snow globes blocking the view of neighborhood houses, or the fact that the shelves of our local Hobby Lobby have been overflowing with Christmas decor for months — we haven’t completely robbed it of its magic.
Even in our churches, we’ve often tried to mold Christmas into a time of incessant nostalgia and emotional sappiness. We love it when the children tell the nativity story and confuse the details a bit (like the child who told the story of the wise men’s gifts of gold, Frankenstein, and myrrh). We don’t mind the hackneyed creche made from injectable plastic because there’s still something enchanting about the thought of the baby Jesus in the manger.
For me, I’ve never been able to shake Frederick Buechner’s terrifying yet hopeful description of Christmas: “The Word became flesh. Ultimate Mystery born with a skull you could crush one-handed. Incarnation. It is not tame. It is not touching. It is not beautiful. It is uninhabitable terror. It is unthinkable darkness riven with unbearable light. Agonized laboring led to it, vast upheavals of intergalactic space/time split apart, a wrenching and tearing of the very sinews of reality itself. You can only cover your eyes and shudder before it, before this: “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God ... who for us and for our salvation,” as the Nicene Creed puts it, “came down from heaven.”
Yes, the mystery of Christmas is made of sturdy stuff. And though you, like our family, may put up a Christmas tree and break out the box of lights for the house this weekend, let us not forget the way that the Christ child arouses our imaginations and enraptures our souls. Let us hear again the call to venture beyond ourselves, recognizing that a new day has dawned as we prepare to receive the Savior once again into our hearts.