Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. Then Isaiah said: ‘Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel (Isaiah 7:10-14)
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child (Luke 2:1-5).
That’s me as Ebenezer Scrooge in the film version of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.
Okay, that’s not really me it’s Alastair Sim in the 1951 film version (I actually much prefer the the 1984 tv production with the incomparable George C. Scott).
But it is who I aspire to be to my family and friends this Christmas. I fear I have increasingly become a “Scrooge” this time of year the last five years or so.
I watched Jim Carrey and Disney’s rendition of A Christmas Carol with my daughter the other day and a number of things occurred to me for the first time. It was the first time I realized that Dicken’s tale has a lot in common with Jesus’ parable about a rich man and a poor man named Lazarus, namely warnings from beyond the grave to miserly loved ones to change their ways.
It was also the first time I really took note how much the Ghost of Christmas past is showing Ebenezer about the formation of his unfortunate way of life and his aversion to Christmas. It wasn’t that his friend and business partner Jacob Marley died on Christmas Eve one year and Ebenezer then became a miser over night. The ghost of Christmas past shows a window into a world of a young Ebenezer who was abandoned by his father and withdrawn from his classmates with only his sister as an interested family member and friend. The wall of self protection and fortress of wealth he tries to build around himself loses him the love of his fiancée Belle, at Christmas time of course. There was the death of his sister. And finally, the death of Marley.
I have not reproached anybody with “Bah, humbug” or insisted that “anybody who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on their lips should be boiled in their own pudding and buried with a stick of holly through their heart;” but I have not really kept Christmas in my heart very well for some time now. I have went to most of the Christmas dinners, parties and gift exchanges I have been invited to by family and friends. But I have not decorated my own home or (gulp) even bought anything for my wife in several years.
Making a conscious decision to be different this year has had me doing a lot of self examination as to where and when my own aversion to Christmas started. The closest and most obvious things of course occurred to me first. My mom passed away in September of 2004. Her birthday is two days before Christmas and Christmas has not been the same since. This coupled with a (semi)legitimate complaint about the capitalist, Hallmark exploitation of the Holiday with Advent being almost entirely swallowed up in that, has been my excuse. But protesting Christmas on moral or religious grounds only finds me sharing much more in common than I would ever wish with the fundamentalist spirit that it is part of my life’s mission to avoid.
And well, I guess I could say a Ghost of Christmas past has showed me that my ambivalence towards Christmas started for me – like it did for Ebenezer Scrooge – as a young boy. When I was a little boy my mom made sure almost every year that there was an incredibly ridiculous abundance of gifts wrapped up in pretty paper beneath our Christmas tree. Of course as a small child I really liked this. I didn’t like the one Christmas I can remember when my mom couldn’t get much and the church we were members of brought us each one Christmas gift. But the following year it was business as usual: a new stereo, new head phones, a stocking full of candy and cassette tapes for the new stereo.
As each year my mother’s religious convictions about the meaning of Christmas became more and more my own convictions, I noticed a great conflict between the homeless infant we declared the meaning of the season and excessive materialism in the way we celebrated it. I also noticed more and more that it was not that we were broke just that one Christmas when the church brought us our gifts. We were always broke. We lived on school free lunch and government cheese for goodness sake. It was just that most Christmases my mom chose to max out credit cards and/or overdraft the checking account to get us all of the increasingly expensive things on the Christmas lists of three children. As time went on I realized a few more things. My dad never really celebrated Christmas with buying gifts. My mom usually bought herself a couple of things and designated my dad as the giver of the gifts. And finally, my parents biggest fights, periods of separation and my father’s biggest alcoholic binges usually began in January (right before my birthday) with a quarrel over money spent on Christmas presents.
In addition to all of this, I have been a full time student since the fall of 2003 (a year before my mom died). And this has usually helped guaranty two things each Christmas: As a one-income family we are usually broke by the time we buy gifts for three different family gatherings. And secondly, each year I would wear down my body with stress, lack of sleep and overnighters, cramming for finals and writing papers every year the week before Christmas and almost certainly be sick the week of Christmas.
So, the mourning of my mom and my disgust over exploitation of the holiday have been only partial explanation for my lack of yuletide spirit. But as I said, I am really trying to be different this year. I wish I could say I am not sick and I am not broke this Christmas. But that would be untrue. And I guess that would be an insufficient test of my resolve to be more graceful, patient and kind this Christmas. I want to be full of the exuberance and joy I knew as a child. But for now I am happy to not be so angry.
Last year on my mom’s birthday, two days before Christmas, I watched a dear friend of mine who lived with a great deal of heartache and anger stumble out the door in a drunken stupor. He refused my couch as a place to crash and sober up. He died a couple of days after Christmas. He drank himself to death. In many ways he is like my Jacob Marley. Except for, unlike Marley, I believe he is finally at peace. Nonetheless, his life, death and visits in my dreams have all beckoned me to deal with my pain and my anger differently, constructively and to allow myself to love and be loved in return.
So here is to trying. This year Christmas dinner is at my house (for the first time ever in my adult life). Stockings are hung, the tree is decorated. I even managed to set aside a little something for a gift for my wife before the annual, inevitable Christmas bankruptcy set in. I can’t wait to see the faces of my two small children this year as they open up their gifts for the fist time at home on Christmas morning. I am resolved to be more communicative to my in-laws this holiday. I hope my mother-in-law who has been the sole motherly presence in my life for the last five years knows how much I appreciate all she does for us. And I hope I can conduct myself with more tact and grace this year in the presence of my siblings, my father and his wife.
Most of all, I just want them all to know that, despite often failing in communicating it, I do love them dearly. I am slowly but surly learning to love myself. And, I hope and pray to “lean into” the peace on earth and goodwill toward all that is the true gift of this holiday season, and keep it in my heart beyond the season.
God bless us, everyone.
[image of the good shepherd found in the catacombs]
Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel,
you who lead Joseph like a flock!
You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth
before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh.
Stir up your might,
and come to save us!
Restore us, O God;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.
O Lord God of hosts,
how long will you be angry with your people though they pray?
You have fed them with the bread of tears,
and given them tears to drink in full measure.
You make us the scorn of our neighbors;
our enemies laugh among themselves.
Restore us, O God of hosts;
let your face shine, that we may be saved…
But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand,
the one whom you made strong for yourself.
Then we will never turn back from you;
give us life, and we will call on your name.
Restore us, O Lord God of hosts;
let your face shine, that we may be saved (Psalm 80:1-7;17-19).
Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.’
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray (Isaiah 35:3-8).
And Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants for ever’ (Luke 1:46-55).
A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious (Isaiah 11:1-10)
We can only talk about the fulfillment of these divine promises when in the new creation of all things death is no more, and time has found it’s end; for the power of time and the inescapability of death are forces of history; and death and time pass away only in confrontation with that new divine Presence which is described as God’s eternal dwelling in all things: ‘God all in all’ (1 Cor. 15:28). Then faith and sight will coincide; then the promising word and experiencing reality will concur, then God’s truth will fill heaven and earth (Jürgen Moltmann – Experiences in Theology).