It’s the most wondrous time of the year. That’s true enough. But our songs all insist we must all put on a jolly face, have a wonderful time and, for goodness sake, we’d better not cry!
Goodness knows, we don’t want to be sad this time of year. We are supposed to be happy, right? “I’m sorry,” my friend apologizes through reddened eyes, “I don’t know why I’m weepy.”
And yet, it’s the season of the year when we celebrate the most vulnerable time of all–the birth of a baby. Death in childbirth for mother and/or child was an all-too-common occurrence then (and still is in too much of the world), multiplied several times over by placing the newborn in an animal trough!
Angels and shepherds and circumcision and magi and Herod… we bunch together a couple years of gospel events into one big season of constant celebration. And maybe that’s the point: we call it all a “celebration” when the story itself calls for a commemoration. There are solemn, even somber, parts to that story. Those parts didn’t have to be part of the scriptural record. It could have been all angels singing, innkeepers repenting, shepherd dancing in gay apparel, no sheep dung on their sandals. But isn’t that just like the Bible to show life as the mixed bag it really is, warts and all? David, the “man after God’s own heart,” adding adultery and murder to his résumé . Peter, both passionate and foolish. The ancient Israelites, set apart as God’s “chosen people,” yet berated by their own prophets for their greed, injustice and xenophobia. If there’s one thing that strengthens my faith in the veracity of Scripture, it’s the unvarnished and almost universally unadorned portrait of its characters.
Yet over the centuries our culture has adorned Christmas and varnished it ’til its glossy sheen nearly blinds us to the underlying material. It has become something different, a magical season of fantasy. Janet and I watched the original “Miracle of 34th Street” last night and were swept up in the story as much as the next guy. It’s fun to delight once again, like we did as children, in a myriad of memories and traditions and twinkling lights like those that mesmerize my young grandson.
But not only can this feeling not be sustained for the entire “Christmas season” (which is a shopping term of ever-increasing length), but neither should it be. The Church’s term throughout history, “Advent”, invites and even beckons a different and more complex set of emotions. It’s a time of preparation, of remembrance of the full story, of feeling the complete range of human emotion at the full-orbed story of the entry of the Christ-child into our full-orbed world.
“Peaceful Christmas” music wafts behind me, courtesy of Pandora. It invites a peaceful acceptance of emotion, as violins now render “Silent night, holy night.” The phrase, repeated in every verse of this most-beloved song, is “holy night,” not “happy night.” “Holy” can be joy-filled, thoughtful, tearful, awestruck, watchful. None of those emotions need an apology during a season of preparation for a holy night.
In my office hangs a framed photo I was given when I left Promise Keepers, after serving as their California state manager during the boom years. The Orange County Register published the photograph during the largest stadium event PK ever held, at the LA Coliseum in 1995. The photo portrayed what was best about that uneven men’s movement: as worship music was pulsing from the stage, the men on the front row are shown alternately lifting hands, kneeling, weeping openly, singing passionately. Their diversity of response to what was “holy” is as riveting as their diversity of race and socio-economic status. It is beautiful to behold.
Let that be our invitation then, to not only feel but to accept and even welcome the full range of human emotion in this season, without apologies that “I’m such a downer” or “I know I shouldn’t be sad at this time of year.” Those of us who struggle to feel the complete range of emotion should be jealous. We lack the taste buds to enjoy the full-bodied communion wine of all the complex flavors of Advent.
If you can taste them fully, but are tempted to apologize for that, perhaps it will help to remember that this is first and foremost Advent season, the time of preparation for Christmas, which lasts for a day.
In my view, an Advent season without tears is the saddest Christmas indeed. ‘Tis the season to be tender.