It’s a week from Christmas day. I haven’t had a chance yet to post a picture of my perfect family sitting in our perfect tidy house around our perfectly decorated tree. Well, I say I haven’t had a chance: what I mean is, I don’t have any of those things. I have a flawed family in a messy house where we haven’t yet put up the tree and when we do it will not look like anything you would put in a magazine. I promise.
I try not to get caught up in this pressure to create the “perfect Christmas,” but I did a little bit tonight, just for a few minutes, as we were getting ready to head off to church for the candlelight service. In some churches it’s Christmas morning or Christmas Eve service that brings everyone out; in ours it’s the candlelight music program held on a Friday night a week or so before Christmas that brings out almost all the members as well as their friends and relatives who never come to church any other time, and the former members who still want to show their face and say hi — the typical Christmas church crowd. It’s also a lovely service that our family has always attended and our more musical family members have generally participated in.
Now, you may notice that I don’t blog about parenting here as much as I used to when the kids are small. They’re teenagers now (one is nearly a legal adult, as he likes to remind me) and they have their own privacy to think about, and I try to respect that. But I don’t think I’m violating too many confidences here if I say that I was having a bit of a battle of wills with Nearly Legal Adult who was more-or-less willing to play for the instrumental music at the beginning of the service, but absolutely drew the line at sticking around for the rest of the program. Nope. Not gonna happen.
(Sample dialogue: “But it’s our family tradition! Everybody goes to the Christmas service — even atheists!” “I’m not an atheist, Mom.” “Well, then, agnostics! The place is full of agnostics at Christmas!!”)
And it’s a tough enough service anyway, as so many Christmassy things are, because even though this is the third Christmas since my mom died, every traditional family event is full of memories, and I now realize that continues not just for the year after you’ve lost someone but for all the rest of your life, in little sharp pangs of reminder.
And then, as the oh-so-familiar songs rolled out over the congregation, I looked over the pews, fuller tonight than they are at any time in the year. I saw families united in the church pew for this night only, with one member who probably cries every so often because the others aren’t worshipping together all the rest of the year. Families with a member missing because someone couldn’t or didn’t want to be there — maybe someone who’s far away. Families grieving the recent loss of a parent, a spouse, a sibling — or remembering a loss from long ago that feels as fresh today as ever. People worried about a bad diagnosis who are fearing the losses to come, wondering if this will be the last time they’re sitting here together. The immigrant families who are so far from home and the extended family at this time of year. The parents who are without their kids because the family is split and this is the kids’ weekend with the other parent. And the people who share in the hugs and handshakes and laughter of this night, but who come alone and go home alone — the single, the widowed, the divorced. Some go to their empty houses and thank God for the peace and quiet, and others go home and cry because of how badly they long for any family, even a fractured and flawed one.
What a ridiculous image we’ve been sold, this idea of the perfect family Christmas, everyone sitting around sipping eggnog in their matching Christmas sweaters, happy and united, no missing pieces, no missing peace! I’m not sure where it comes from (though I want to say “capitalism”), but it’s definitely not from the Bible, or from the Christian tradition of celebrating Our Lord’s birth.
The Biblical Christmas story has never been a story about a perfect, united family in a peaceful, serene, well-decorated setting. We know this — we know it’s a story about a couple with no place to go, a desperate search for shelter, a baby born in makeshift surroundings, people making do in less than ideal circumstances. We know theologically that Incarnation is about God taking on that flawed and fragile thing — human flesh — and coming into the midst of our imperfect, broken, hurting world. We know that the story climaxes with the Holy Family fleeing a horrific act of state violence, and that the Biblical story includes the haunting screams of mothers weeping for dead children and refusing to be comforted.
We know all this, and yet we still buy in to the image of the perfect family around the Christmas tree. And though that image is a purely secular invention, some of us Christians want to add to that a picture of a perfect family in a church pew, everybody present, everybody getting along, everybody believing with all their hearts. Even though the most cursory glance around any church sanctuary will reveal what I saw so clearly tonight. There’s not one unbroken family — no, forget that: there’s not one unbroken person — in the whole place. Nor was there ever supposed to be.
It’s a story about brokenness. About light coming in darkness; about God-With-Us when we are most in need of God; about the Prince of Peace coming to a war-torn land; about finding hope in the midst of pain and grief and human frailty. And this Christmas — any Christmas — I want to wholeheartedly reject the Hallmark image of fake perfection and lean into the brokenness of Christmas. Regardless of your religious beliefs or lack there of, I invite you to do the same. Embrace the imperfection. Laugh at the things that make you laugh. Sing the songs that inspire you. Feel the sadness when you think about those who aren’t around the table anymore, and say their names out loud. And if, like me, the memory of someone loved and lost rises up at the very moment the congregation is invited to sing “Joy to the World,” and you want to stand there with tears rolling down your face while everyone sings about joy — you do that. That’s OK. Because you’re broken, and Jesus wouldn’t have bothered being born into any world but a broken one.
(Note: I’ve been blogging for a long time now, and nearly every Christmas I seem to write something like this, about the darker or at least the less merry side of the season. If you want to read some of my other reflections on the not-always-jolly holidays, you can read about light, about flesh, about Advent tragedies, and about grief at Christmas.)