This week, I became reacquainted with a particular sadness – one that I had forgotten about until it presented itself again from my store of memories. I first felt it when I was a child, maybe ten years old. Tucked into bed and trying to get to sleep, I could not shake a profound sense of grief that Christmas was over. There would be no more carols playing on the hi-fi. Decorations had unceremoniously been boxed up and put away, and the tree – so full of color and sparkle and life – was dry and discarded, lying on its side at the edge of the front lawn. I still had the gifts I received on Christmas morning, but they seemed a poor consolation for the loss of the season itself.
When you are a child, the length of time between Christmases seems like an eternity because those early years are all significant slices of your young life. And for me, the end-of-Christmas grief was punctuated by the fact that the “free church” tradition in which I was raised reduced Christmas to only one day. All the anticipation, all the excitement, all the magic built up over the previous few weeks was expended in one morning of wide-eyed delight over treasures that had been left under the tree, some wrapped in colorful paper and bows, others on full display just waiting to be enjoyed. As I remember, my family kept our tree up until New Year’s Day, but many of our neighbors tossed theirs to the curb on the 26th. And the few of us who tried to keep a “season” of Christmas knew our efforts were futile. For all intents and purposes, the holiday was over. No radio station was still playing carols. We didn’t even continue to sing them at church. “Merry Christmas” gave way to “Happy New Year” before Santa had time to get back to the North Pole.
After thirty years of ministry and leading congregations through Advent and Christmastide, and also knowing intellectually that Christmas returns ever more quickly as we get older, I don’t usually feel grief when the tree comes down and the decorations are put away. (Well, maybe a tiny pang, but nothing more.) There was a point this week, however, when I palpably relived the pain of the little boy sobbing himself to sleep while fading images of Dickensian carolers and receding echoes of their joyous strains filled his mind. Even though our tree is still up and we’ll continue to sing carols in church on Sunday, I can’t deny a sense of loss knowing that Christmas is quickly ebbing away.
Why this year? Well, my grief is at least partially the result of how rarely we have
But Christmas is more than a family reunion. I realized this week that the entire season has captured my heart in a way that it doesn’t every year. As in previous years, I have reveled in the joy of others. I have been moved by the peace that others found as they struggled with loss. I have marveled at the generosity, the talent, and the faith so freely shared in our congregation through service, fellowship and worship. But in addition, this year I found myself filled with a sense of mystery and awe – the childlike wonder that Jesus said we should never outgrow – a kind of spiritual freedom that allowed me, even as a pastor and worship leader, to participate in worship, not just preside over it. Every service, including the Jazz Vespers, Lessons and Carols, two very distinct Christmas Eve services, and worship on Christmas morning, touched me deeply and in unexpected ways. God provided me a wide-angle view of the universe that put all my anxieties into perspective, then led me to zoom in closely on the event on Jesus’ birth, an ordinary moment infused with extraordinary, cosmic significance.
These mystical experiences never last. So, I’m a little sad that the season is drawing to a close. I guess my “childlike wonder” led to a childlike sadness.
A skeptical reader will dismiss my experience as so much sentimental drivel, an escapist spirituality that allows me to disengage from the world. And to be sure, holiday observances and religion in general can devolve into just that – a sort of spiritual bubble we enter so that we may ignore the challenges of real life. But true mysticism is an encounter with the sacred that transcends this world instead of escaping it. It deepens our hope and strengthens us to engage the world more fully knowing that the reconciling work of God is always greater than any particular machinations of human beings, even those of national and global significance.
For this reason, joy, peace, generosity, sharing of gifts, service, fellowship, worship, mystery, and spiritual freedom are hardly limited to Advent and Christmas. They are characteristics of the shared life of any healthy faith community that gird us throughout the year. But the season of preparing for and celebrating Christmas is always special. When we give ourselves to it completely, we find every blessing magnified. The light we hold for each other becomes splendorous. Our expectation makes us more aware, and then more grateful when we recognize all the gifts we are given. When we join the shepherds and “go to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us,” the truth and wonder of God-with-us is revealed again. The ordinary becomes extraordinary. Faith is renewed.
If such seasons were the whole of life, they would lose their luster. Nothing would be special anymore. The grief we feel when they come to an end, therefore, is not a sign of loss so much as a confirmation of what we have been given – something so wonderful that its fullness can only be experienced occasionally, affording us a taste too flavorful to forget, so we can look forward to enjoying it again.
©2016 by J. Mark Lawson