The other day I heard Burl Ives belt out his Christmas classic, “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas.” It was the first time for me to hear the homey tune this season, and it usually evokes in me the mental image we traditionally associate with Christmas – warmth, family, cheer, celebration, joy. These are the time-honored wishes we send to others in greeting cards and repeat in our thank-yous after holiday events. It is what we like, what we want and what we expect.
Yet, I have been musing that so many Christmases shelved in Christian history were of a different sort. They weren’t the “holly jolly” kind but rather a needy, sad uncertain kind.
Oh, there’s nothing wrong with the festive sort of holidays, but they’re not the ones that make for life change. When everything is jolly, we do not grow in our understanding of the Incarnation and we do not develop the “God with us” perspective that transcends any circumstance.
This year, we find ourselves in the middle of a worldwide pandemic. Whether it will be as catastrophic in the historical record as it seems in news reports today is a matter of conjecture. We simply don’t know what the end will be. But the reality we do know is that it has changed the daily warp and woof of our existence in ways we do not like and do not want. And it will change our Christmas experience. There is no way around that.
We’re Not the First
When our situations keep us from wrapping our present around the seasonal images from our past, we must reach out for the truth and create an expanding view of what Christmas may mean. And that path has been laid out by saints before us.
The origins of Christmas as we know it are sometimes a matter of debate and alarm because of the assimilation of former pagan practices into the remembrance of the holy Birth. But what is important to remember is that a Christocentric approach to any culture will, by necessity, redeem some of the customs and observances. As Christians scattered across the world, they brought with them the knowledge that Jesus born in a manger to save us all could change everyday life. And as they diffused that grace into their settings, cultural and ethnic ideas were sanctified and altered and adopted into the consciousness that the manger’s Occupant changed the world.
And so, down through the centuries, those who follow Christ have kept and celebrated this sacred season to the best of their resources and understanding. But many Christmases have found God’s children in desolate and desperate settings – some caused by natural situations such as illness and some caused by the greed and violence of mankind.
- David Brainerd spent Christmas Day 1745 seriously ill with tuberculosis but preaching to Native American people groups.
- Missionaries John and Betty Stam spent the early days of December 1934 in the hands of the Red Communist Party who finally executed them.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer spent Christmas 1943 and 1944 in prison, the last one at SS Headquarters in Berlin, en route to his eventual execution.
- Eric Liddell, Christian Olympian and missionary, served others in a Japanese internment camp during the Christmases of 1943 and 1944.
- Corrie ten Boom spent Christmas 1944 in a hospital barracks in Ravensbruck Concentration Camp, bringing comfort to a mentally-challenged girl.
- During Glasnost, Russian Christians spent Christmas in Siberian banishment.
- Chinese Christians will spend this Christmas celebrating in secret and knowing it could be their last one on earth.
We Have His Presence
So, as we contemplate this Christmas and the complications that the year has brought to us and the conditions in which we find ourselves as we plan our festive gatherings, we need to focus our thoughts on the life-changing aspects of difficult circumstances.
Bonhoeffer in his last communication with his fiancée, a Christmas letter, wrote, “It’s as if, in solitude, the soul develops organs of which we’re hardly aware in everyday life.”
This development of soul-awareness is one that we can embrace in our unwelcome settings too. As the physical senses hurt and the emotional senses reel, the soul’s senses reach out for comfort and joy that transcend the situation.
In a letter the previous year to his parents, he wrote, “It’s not until such times as these that we realize what it means to possess a past and a spiritual inheritance independent of changes of time and circumstance. The consciousness of being borne up by a spiritual tradition that goes back for centuries gives one a feeling of confidence and security in the face of all passing strains and stresses.”
For Christians everywhere in every generation, our holiday events center on the Incarnation and that can be no more fully comprehended than in the middle of chaos and pain. When the world is helter-skelter, our hearts are ready for the wonder that He came to share it. As we spend a few days with fever and aches, we remember that He came to redeem our human suffering. As we sit in quarantine, isolated from our friends and normal social lives, we remember that He too experienced aloneness and separation from His Father. As we wonder about the future, we remember that the purpose of His birth was fulfilled in His death which conquered the curse forever. God with us is more than a description of who He is; it’s a promise of what He brings.
Whether we find ourselves in plenty or in want, in a gathering or in isolation, in health or in illness, this Christmas we clutch the knowledge that a holly, jolly Christmas cannot minister to the depths in us in the way that a desperate one can do. It is in desperation that we find the eternal One – sufficient, radiant, present.