Christmas–Close or Far Away?

Christmas 2013

A joyous Christmas from our home to yours

Christmas is a day away from us.  Or as far away as it can be—364 days away—depending on your perspective.

My husband and I ushered at our church’s Christmas Eve service, where the Joy Offering supports church workers who minister to the poor.  Our children spent Christmas Eve with our former spouses, so we volunteered at church to do something productive as we awaited with anticipation the arrival of our children for Christmas morning.

Christmas Day was filled with family, in a gathering at my niece’s home.  She and her husband are wonderful hosts, and she and her sister and her mother are accomplished cooks. I make an appetizer, a side dish, and a dessert and help with the clean-up—far easier than hosting 30+ people in our home as I once did.

We end each Christmas with a Baggo tournament (also known as corn-holing), complete with two trophies for the winning team.  Some among us are fierce competitors, who want above all else on Christmas to keep those cheesy trophy cups in their homes for one more year.  The teenagers, who arrange the brackets, have long since learned to pair the competitive ones together, so last night they paired me with my sister-in-law, one of my best friends in the world, who, like me, could care less about that plastic trophy painted in gold.

But last night, she and I ended up in the few remaining teams competing for the trophy.  I found myself hoping, for the first time in almost two decades, that I might take that trophy home with me.  I didn’t.  My sister-in-law and I were knocked out of the competition by my daughter’s boyfriend and his partner.  My husband and our niece, the host, were knocked out a round or so later.  My daughter and my nephew were in the final round, though they lost to my brother-in-law and my niece’s son, in a contest that went on until midnight.

There was a time in my life when I would have felt guilty about such a celebration, where my niece always creates a new signature mixed drink for the year and where beer and wine flow freely before dinner.  I grew up in a faith tradition where alcohol was verboten and where every December even the poorest of us were lectured about tithing 10% of our income to the church to pay the salary of the pastor and to keep the utilities turned on in the church, not to reach the needy outside—or even within—the congregation.  I never once heard the word Advent—because it wasn’t a word in the Gospels—but we were frequently admonished to “keep the Christ in Christmas” and to remember that “Jesus is the reason for the season.”

Never having been exposed to non-Christian faiths in my hometown, I had no concept of how those of others faiths and no faiths approached the celebration of Christmas Day.  In my world, you were either a devout Christian who observed the day as the birth of a Savior, or you were a Christian by heritage only who celebrated the holiday in all its crass commercialism.

But my first year in college, I read a poem by Howard Nemerov, a non-practicing Jew who often explored in his poetry the relevance of Christianity and religion in the modern world.  The poem, “Santa Claus,” talks about how the “strange child” (Jesus) somewhere along the way picks up “this overstuffed confidence man / Affection’s inverted thief, who climbs at night / Down chimneys into dreams.”

And despite the fact that he was a non-Christian, Nemerov spoke eloquently to me of Santa Claus in a way that the trite sayings of the church’s religious leaders about the commercialization of Christmas did not:

This annual savior of the economy

Speaks in the parables of the dollar sign:

Suffer the little children to come to Him.

At Easter, he’s anonymous again,

Just one of the crowd lunching on Calvary.

So how do I balance the joy of giving our children extravagant gifts they wouldn’t buy for themselves with giving a portion of my money, my time, myself to a world in so much need that it could sap every resource I can offer and still not be satisfied?  How do I enjoy the blessings God has given me and not feel guilty that “much is required” of me—much more than I can give without getting sucked into the vortex of sadness and pain?

I don’t know.

What I do know is that God expects me to give back to a world much in need of compassion and grace.  And I know that I can’t use as an excuse that if every single person who is blessed with enough gave even a little bit, then we would have the resources to save the world, to bring peace on earth.

And so, now that Christmas is both close and far away, I will do what I can to keep Christ in the world and not just in Christmas.  And I will remember that Christians don’t have the corner on the market of benevolence and grace.  My Jewish friends, my Muslim friends, my atheist friends—all keep Christ in the world—more than many Christians I know who claim Jesus as their “personal Lord and Savior” but who do little to offer Jesus’ merciful understanding to people who need a glimpse of Christ’s grace in the form of human compassion.

Last night I thoroughly enjoyed the company of my loved ones.  Everyone agreed that it was, yet again, a joyous celebration of family and friends.  But like many families around the world, there was little of the Christ Child in the celebration.  Most of us had attended church services, and my husband’s Catholic family said grace before the meal—the one I always mess up by saying something a little differently than they do, once again earning a stifled laugh and an elbow from my husband.

I feel blessed to be part of such a family.  They give much back to the world that has given much to them in return for their dedication and hard work.  And I suspect that God doesn’t mind all that much that we were having fun and enjoying the love we share before we journey back into a world in need.

So tell me, how do you find Christ in the world—not the Christ of Christians but the God of giving and grace?