What is it about Christmas that can bring out the worst in families? The other day, my brother Bob and I were discussing our Christmas experiences as children, and neither of us could recall a Merry Christmas. Not even a pleasant one. That was a time when family tensions seemed to be at their worst with resentments and grudges spilling out all over the place, usually at the dinner table. A good friend and former colleague once quipped it wasn’t until he got older that he realized a drunken father or relative knocking over the Christmas tree was not part of the holiday ritual.
Certainly part of the reason for the increased family tensions are the burdensome expectations -- the commercial aspects of the Christmas season that begin ratcheting up even before Thanksgiving nowadays, with retailers trying to get a jump on the most important shopping season of the year. For others, Christmas is simply a time that dredges up bad memories of Christmas past.
For decades, I remember priests and nuns telling us that the key to countering the pressures and tensions of the season was to bring Christ back into Christmas. A lovely thought and impeccable in its logic. But, easier said than done. How to do that?
Here’s my unorthodox, perhaps even heretical thought. First, let’s go straight to the nativity scene in the manger at Bethlehem and imagine ourselves as part of that scenario. Angels are singing, shepherds are watching, and wise men from East, after following a star, bring gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the newborn King.
There we stand mute and dumb as the sheep and oxen that are munching on the hay and straw nearby. What do we have to give to the newborn, we might wonder in embarrassment? Actually, we have a lot, something even more precious than gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But to understand what, we need to fast forward through Jesus’s life – through his public life in Canaan and Galilee that ended in Jerusalem and death on the cross. By doing that, we have an advantage of foresight that the kings and the shepherds didn’t have – an understanding that He came, not to be worshipped and adored. He came to save us poor weak, broken people from ourselves – from our worst habits and instincts and destructive behaviors, from our grudges, resentments, and deep-down anger.
Knowing that in faith, we can step forth boldly and confidently and lay these “gifts” at the feet of the Child because He knows how to deal with them. We don’t. Moreover, He is grateful that we are willing through faith to take Him at his word. Once we surrender and turn over these burdens, we can start living a life that He and we want us to live. A life lived more abundantly. One that allows us to get down to the business of forgiving and loving ourselves so that we can be free to love and forgive others in the joy of the season, which is the heart of the Christmas message.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.
Gerald E. Lavey