I grew up with images of Sweet Baby Jesus being born on Christmas day. Sometimes I’m nostalgic for those days of innocence: Jesus’ and mine. In the comfort of my suburban home, I imagined all good girls and boys had the same kind of Christmas to which I was entitled. I was taught that Jesus was born poor and in a stable but, I had no real understanding of poverty or homelessness. Our Christmases were gloriously predictable: Santa would come; cookies would be baked; dinner would be plentiful; family would gather. And plaster Baby Jesus was perfectly happy to stay tucked away in his manger with Mary and Joseph dutifully at his side while we opened our presents.
While playing with my new toys, I would give an occasional nod to Jesus. We would attend Mass and sing our carols and I knew that Christmas was about the birth of Jesus. But my world was small and my understanding of life beyond my family, my neighborhood, and my parish was limited. And I liked it that way. There was security in the bubble that was my young life. Mom and Dad and my brothers and baby sister were all I needed. The messy stuff; the scary stuff; the life outside; was more than my little mind could (or would) comprehend.
Then it happened. I grew up. Life got messy and sometimes scary, but I held on tight to my need for perfect Christmases. I wanted everyone to be happy. “Jingle Bells” would be blaring from my cassette tape player. Reality would be put on hold. As a newlywed I found Christmas to be another opportunity to share our love but with the added stress of finding (and affording) that perfect gift. When our children came along, I tried desperately to give them the Christmas of my youth: warm, secure, loving, with plenty of gifts and a dash of Baby Jesus thrown in for good measure. And we would routinely go in debt to make darn sure that happened. Because no one could be disappointed with a less than perfect Christmas!
They say with age comes wisdom. I’m not sure if that’s true. I think more accurately “with age comes the same mistakes over and over”. And sometimes if we’re paying attention or we get kicked in the head we might actually learn from those mistakes. You can call that wisdom, I guess. At least that’s my wisdom experience.
I mean no disrespect to anyone who needs the image of Baby Jesus at Christmas. I love babies and I think it’s remarkable that our Savior was born an infant. However, Jesus’ humble birth sends a message that for most of my life escaped me. As I’ve aged, I’ve come to the realization that Christmas comes to everyone, not just the happy little families gathered around their tree. I will always cherish my childhood experience of Christmas, but as Christians we are called to have a preference for the poor, the marginalized, the forgotten. “As followers of Christ, we are challenged to make a fundamental ‘option for the poor’—to speak for the voiceless, to defend the defenseless, to assess lifestyles, policies and social institutions in terms of their impact on the poor”. I have some work to do.
But here’s the good news: Jesus comes for all of us! What I need to constantly remind myself is that Christmas comes whether we’re celebrating a beautiful Christmas liturgy or working the graveyard shift at a convenience store. Christmas comes whether the gifts under our tree are beautifully wrapped and plentiful or if they are being given to us by a volunteer at the Salvation Army. Christmas comes if we’re enjoying a sumptuous feast with family gathered or sitting alone at a soup kitchen. Christmas comes while we’re holding our sweet-cheeked grandchild on our lap or holding the hand of a loved who has just received a devastating diagnosis. Christmas comes whether we are celebrating new love or mourning the loss of our lifetime companion. Christmas comes with giggles and joy and with tears and heartache. Christmas comes.
I still strive for those perfect Christmases. The ones where everyone is happy and well fed and sufficiently gifted and loved beyond measure. But now I know to also look for Jesus in the less fortunate circumstances. I try to find Christmas in the hurried shoppers, the beleaguered parents, the refugees searching for a home, the lonely neighbor, the recovering alcoholic, the estranged family member, and that old man that I see in the mirror.
So, my prayer this year is that wherever we find ourselves, we are still able to shout the Good News. Jesus is born! Our salvation is at hand. Whether you’re in a high holy place with a glorious choir singing Alleluia or handing out “Toys for Tots” to children in need; if you are “on top of world” or find yourself lost in despair, hoping for better days to come or pining for days gone by, I hope that Jesus (or whatever/wherever you find comfort at Christmas) touches your heart and lifts your spirits.
May your Christmas this year be perfected by His love.
The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all people. Today a savior has been born for you.”