Friday, December 18, 2015

When Christmas Hurts--The Promise that Will End Your Suffering

I can still remember the day we discovered Santa wasn't real.  I had noticed my brother's eyes were red and swollen, so I asked him what was wrong.  He passed the tragic news to me, and then I found my younger sister and told her.  What? WHAT?!!!  It felt like we had been hit with an outrageous announcement that Santa had died that day.  It was much more complicated.

He had never existed at all.

A hazy cloud seemed to surround us that morning.  We wandered around aimlessly in the play room in our basement,  trying to conjure up the fun and excitement that a Christmas vacation had always brought. We mourned a Santa that never was. The question "why" swirled in our minds. Why were we serendipitously fed the lie year after year?   How does a child wrap his mind around this?

You see, Dad and Mom had painstakingly created Santa at length for years.  They had stayed up late each Christmas Eve assembling bicycles and wrapping packages that would mysteriously appear by the tree each Christmas morning.

Who had eaten the cookies and drank the coffee (apparently, Santa preferred it to milk) we had left each Christmas Eve?  I remember panicking one year when I realized we didn't have sugar cubes for the reindeer. Mom explained that Santa could spoon out regular sugar for Dasher, Dancer, and the six others, and sure enough,  the next morning sugar was missing from the sugar bowl.

And what about the year we thought we heard reindeer on the roof, and Santa woke us up AT OUR VERY HOME,  calling us by our first names, making sure he had our Christmas wish list straight?  My brother told me he saw Rudolph's nose lighting up the sky that night as he peered outside his bedroom window.

And whose lap did we sit on in the department store  sharing our need for a new doll and a fire truck? We still had the picture as proof in the bottom drawer of Mom and Dad's dresser.

Then there was the time we gathered with our cousins, aunts and uncles for our annual Christmas party, and who should show up that evening?  Yep.  The man, dressed in red with a black belt, white beard, bellowing "ho ho ho" as he passed out beautifully wrapped gifts for each of us cousins, calling each one by name. It was magical.

Even though our grief was short-lived and we accepted the news and moved on, it had a funny way of playing tricks on our minds.  Because until just now writing this, I didn't  as easily remember the fun memories of Christmases past, as much as the day we discovered the truth.  The magic of pretend, the illusion of Santa, his elves, reindeer, and somehow even the Grinch and Frosty the Snowman got lost in the moment of truth.

We do our best as parents to create whimsy, to build magical memories for our children, to give them exciting stories they can look back on with fondness.  We love our kids.  My parents' intentions were pure.  They loved us, and even though funds were short, they put time and energy into making our childhood Christmases wonderful. There was no hidden agenda, no plot to subvert our imaginations. They just played the role they had learned and observed from those around them. Creating the imaginary Santa was intended to be for our good. He loved kids. He helped leverage good behavior. He helped create magical childhood memories.

As an adult, for many years I was judgmental of those who allowed Santa into their homes, especially Christians.  I couldn't understand reconciling Santa Claus with the birth of Christ.  My husband and I decided we couldn't, as parents, justify lying to our kids for the sake of building a fairytale childhood for them.  We couldn't reconcile this one big exception to the universal need for truth telling.  So we taught our kids about baby Jesus coming to earth, about Mary and Joseph,  the shepherds, wise men, manger--the Christmas story.  It was the celebration of the birth of Christ--the Christ mass.  We exchanged gifts with each other as an expression of love for each other.  And even though we fought the "gimmie monster" and the commercialism of the season each year, they knew who bought and wrapped the gifts, and were taught to express gratitude for them.  We created traditions in the context of appreciating the gifts of family and friends we had been given, and celebrated the birth of our Savior at a Christmas Eve candlelight service.

One year our daughter, Amy, after a moment of pondering, exclaimed, "I know why people keep putting the 'Christmas Man' on their houses.  They like his beard!"  Yes, they were naive to the whole charade.  Santa was a make-believe character in a story that people told their kids.  Some kids chose to believe he was real. My kids were warned never to divulge the truth.  That was their friends parent's job.  Not a nice burden to put on my kids either, but for us it was the lesser of two evils.

As adults, we create a new kind of charade.  We long for the elusive promises of peace, hope,  and joy on earth, so we write these terms on Christmas cards we struggle to send, and we decorate our homes with these same promises.  We do our best to create it in a holiday that was never meant to do any of this. Traditions take over.  A need to create the perfect Christmas experience for our family subverts the original intention of the holy day.  We struggle with the need to show appreciation to those we love in an appropriate tangible way that keeps in step with our culture.  The gifts get more expensive.  The calendars fill up more quickly.  The budgets get tighter, and the stress becomes greater.  As a Mom, I have vowed to do Christmas differently each year, to remember the reason for the season, and yet inadvertently it happens once again.  My kids squeal with excitement whenever the season approaches, and I feel the familiar pang of mixed emotions.

I think deep down there is a hope that this Christmas will provide the perfect mix--necessary traditions, along with  gifts, foods, and celebrations that bring peace, hope, and joy on earth, even if it is just for a little while.  It's a lot of pressure to put on one day.  It's a lot of pressure we put on ourselves to make it happen. Every year the hope is there.  Every year it falls short to deliver.

I have a friend struggling to just breathe this Christmas season.  She and her husband buried their child just a few months ago after a tragic accident that left a gaping hole in their family, a hole that Christmas can't fill. I can't imagine having to go through this once.  They have had to endure that kind of pain twice.  I know other people who look at Christmas as a cruel reminder of a tragic loss--

-- a loved one who is no longer here.
-- a failed marriage.
-- a child that has wandered.
-- a loss of a job or a home.
-- facing a terminal illness.
-- memories of precious Christmases past, now so distant.

The world is packed with millions of heart-wrenching stories.  Precious people struggle to keep a semblance of normal when their world is crashing in.

This year our family was dealt a blow that no one saw coming.  We prayed, cried, questioned, and endured.  And all the while the promises of the peace, hope, and joy of a magical holiday that would end all suffering maliciously mocked us as people hustled and bustled, shopped, and planned for the special coming Day.   All at once I experienced a little bit of what my friend and her family feel.  All at once we were partners with the suffering poor in the world, with those who were saying good-bye to their cherished loved ones, with those who were struggling to breathe through their suffering while the world rushed by in their attempt to once again create a small piece of heaven on earth.

There is nothing like suffering to gain a new perspective.  Sometimes it is during the most intense pain that we get a glimpse of a Savior that we would not have seen otherwise.  When God sent His Son to Earth,  angels sang, shepherds came, wise men travelled and worshipped with gifts fit for a king. For a moment in time there was peace.  And then Joseph and Mary and their new precious baby fled for their lives as a cruel dictator murdered thousands of baby boys in an attempt to destroy the baby Jesus.

The Messiah.  The Promised One.  God with us.  Emmanuel.

And although it is important to remember that Jesus came as a helpless baby, born in a stable, laid in a manger, worshipped miraculously by heavenly hosts, it is only part of the story.  Jesus' birth did not eliminate evil, tragedy, loss and suffering on earth.  It did do something else, something much more amazing.  He was the fulfillment of our Lord's promise--that this world is not the end.  This precious baby would provide the ultimate sacrifice that would bring eternal healing.

He brought a promise.

One day there will be peace.  One day there will be no more grief and sorrow, only joy.
Our hope is now.  The fulfillment will happen in the future.  

This is the Good News of Christmas.

Anything less than this message will distort the truth of Jesus' birth.  Anything less than this promise brings disappointment and stress. The promise is that our lives here are temporary.  We are just passing through.  Our hope is in the future promise of eternity with more peace, hope, and joy than we could ever imagine.

God has not forgotten you. He sees your hurt and feels your pain.  He knows you needed a Savior, wrapped up many years ago in swaddling cloths.  He sent a precious baby, His only Son, as a promise for you.  

Traditions are still good.  Time with family and friends is still precious.  There is healing in celebrating with those we love most.  The sights, sounds, and wonders of this holy day, can still be enjoyed. Gifts are a wonderful expression of love and appreciation.

But the greatest gift of all is yet to be unwrapped.  Until then we celebrate with a longing for the day Heaven truly comes to Earth.