“Once each year the Christmas season strikes both the sacred spheres of life with sledgehammer force: Suddenly Jesus Christ is everywhere.
For approximately one month His presence is inescapable. You may accept Him or reject Him, affirm Him or deny Him, but you cannot ignore Him. Of course, he is proclaimed in speech, song and symbol in all Christian churches. But He rides every red-nosed reindeer, lurks behind every new doll. Resonates in the most desacralized “season’s greetings.” Remotely or proximately, He is toasted in every cup of Christmas cheer. Each sprig of holly is a hint of His holiness, each cluster of mistletoe a sign of His love.”
“Lion and Lamb: The Relentless Tenderness of Jesus”
I remember reading this paragraph many years ago when I first discovered Brennan Manning. I remember a light going off in my heart as these words confirmed what I had always felt: that regardless of how “commercial” Christmas had become, it was still about Jesus and everyone knew this. That’s why I never got riled up about Santa Claus the way my Fundamentalist Baptist friends did. I believed in the old fellow until I was 12, and still do in some ways. (Those Christmas-romantics among us know what I mean here)
This year, however, something is very different for me. I’ve been re-reading Manning over the past few months and I find myself untouched at heart by words that once moved me to tears. The truths of love and grace he was so gifted at expressing, are meaningless to me.
I have gone numb.
I never thought I’d say that. I never thought I’d have a bad Christmas. But here I am, Christmas 2019, having the most non-celebratory, non-Christmassy Christmas in my fifty-six years. This has been one of the hardest years of my life and it shows no sign of letting up.
Christmas has always been a haven for me. The house I grew up in was rife with discord, pettiness, arguing, resentment, and deceit. It’s not that there was a shortage of love…it’s that there was a love vacuum. Showing love in that house would get you hurt. But somehow, Christmas provided a two-week respite from this drudgery. For whatever reason, my mother and her husband seemed to catch the Christmas spirit and for about two weeks there was joy and a veneer of happiness. This was probably owed in large part to the friends and family who came to visit, and the diversion they provided. I lived in a house where outsiders were treasured and valued far more than the “family” who lived there year-round.
Being a Christmas lover, this was okay by me. I didn’t care about the “how and why” of it, I just knew that for about two weeks, the fighting would stop, the bitterness and resentment that pervaded our days would be tucked away, and we actually looked -for that brief period—like a family that loved each other.
I loved this season. I circled the dates on the calendar when each of the essential Christmas specials would air. Charlie Brown Christmas. Rudolph. The Grinch. And my favorite…Scrooge. I watched Bing Crosby’s annual Christmas specials, not because I was necessarily a Crosby fan at my young age, but because it was Christmas. And at Christmas, you participated in every possible tradition you could, because…it was Christmas.
I could go on, but you get the picture. Christmas, for me, was the center point of my year. Not because of the presents -though, as a child, that is certainly among the highest motivation—but because of the pervasive shroud of peace that Christmas brought. Maybe, I was seeing that quote from Manning in real-time in my otherwise very unhappy home. Maybe it was the baby in the manger, underneath it all, that caused a two-week truce, and gave me enough oxygen to survive the other fifty weeks of the year.
When I got older, I swore I would create the kind of home I wanted back then. A place where love would abound and my children would feel like, no matter what the world was throwing at them, once they set foot inside their home, the attack ended. A place where mom and dad where their champions. Where love was a year-round thing. Where Christmas joy wasn’t a facade to impress the visitors…it was an outward expression of a year-round emotion.
That never did happen. I was divorced before my daughter could have her second Christmas. I worked hard each year to create the kind of Christmas I’d always wanted, even within the bounds of a broken family. I did it well, for all those early years. When my daughter was three and was aware enough about Christmas to really start getting into it, I went to Hobby Lobby and bought the items to fashion a set of sleigh bells. I kept these hidden from her, and on Christmas Eve -on the years she spent with me—I would climb up on my roof, as she was just drifting off to sleep, and stomp around, and shake the sleigh bells, and “Ho Ho Ho” and call out to invisible reindeer. She never even remotely suspected that it was me. I would sneak back into the house silently and go into her bedroom and find her squeezing her eyes shut as tightly as she could, just to make sure Santa didn’t think she was still awake.
We kept an Advent calendar each year. We baked Christmas cookies together. We lit up our yard with enough lights and decorations to land a plane in a fog bank. Christmas was, for her, a refuge, as it had been for me. It broke my heart to see her not have Christmas with both her parents together. I would give her anything, and yet I couldn’t even give her this.
She is twenty-one now, almost twenty-two. She still loves Christmas as much as I do…or did. As the years went by, we engaged in the traditions I knew growing up. She’s even made two trips to the legendary Wanamaker’s light display in my hometown of Philadelphia, and she’s eaten “Seven Fishes” with my cousins on Christmas Eve.
Somehow, amidst all the disappointment and sadness of our family dynamic, and the difficulties we’ve endured through the years, we “kept Christmas…and kept it well.” To quote Dickens.
But this year is different.
This year, no matter how I’ve tried, I can’t get into Christmas. I’ve played my favorite Christmas playlist. I’ve watched “Charlie Brown Christmas” over and over…I’ve even cried when Linus gives his remarkable “Meaning of Christmas” speech. But something is missing this year. Something has died.
Yesterday it occurred to me; You simply can’t have Christmas, without God. Not really anyway. If He is really behind every celebration and decoration -as Manning wrote—than to attempt an authentic Christmas celebration without Him is antithetical. It’s a fool’s errand. I should know better.
Yet here I am.
This has been a very hard year for me. Very hard. I finally positioned myself to buy a home, twelve years after losing my last home in the crash of “07. Two weeks after closing, my position at LU was eliminated, and I was out of work. Two weeks.
I found another job right away, but it’s a straight-commission job and building a pipeline is difficult and it has all but ruined me.
During this past year, I watched one of my dearest friends lose his battle with cancer. I saw my cousin’s son lose his battle as well. And somehow this year, I came face to face with my own orphanage, and with the long-term effects of growing up that way and how it has shaped me into a man I no longer recognize.
So has my life.
I became a Christian at the tender age of nine. I am fifty-six. For the first time in forty-seven years, I am doubting God. Not questioning Him…I’ve done that before. I questioned Him about my divorce. I questioned Him about my abbreviated fatherhood, my job loss, the abandonment by my father and mother. I questioned Him -oh how often I questioned Him—when I was homeless. I questioned Him over the past year as my friend Rick battled a brain tumor, and God wouldn’t even let him keep his wonderful gift of creating music, as the battle drew to a close. I questioned Him as my cousin lost her son before he even turned thirty. But I never doubted Him.
I don't doubt He exists. I am certain of that. I doubt that what I thought He was like is true.
Lately, I’ve wondered if He even cares. Not in a “I care about you” sort of way, but in a “That doesn’t really concern me” way.
Lately I have realized that I see Him exactly as I see -and relate to—my own father. “You’re here because of me. I owe you nothing. Make what you can out of it. See you when you get here.” I have stopped praying, except to pray for others. I have stopped reading the Bible daily, something I have been in the habit of doing for these forty-seven years. I don’t go to church anymore and don’t even want to. Church is full of people who will give me clichés because the questions I ask are too uncomfortable and I am viewed as some sort of reprobate for asking them.
I doubt Him now. I don’t doubt that He can “do anything.” I just doubt that He will.
More and more I am convinced that I’m down here on my own. That the promise to “never leave you or forsake you” is more a mechanical outcropping of the salvation experience -once you’re in the family you never leave—than it is a spiritual, almost-physical presence by my side. My family (my daughter and I) are struggling. Things are hard. My dreams are forgotten now and all I think about is bailing enough water to keep the boat from going down with one arm, while I row the boat to shore with the other. One-armed rowing only moves you in circles. One-armed bailing isn’t efficient enough to make headway against the inrushing seas.
I can’t remember a time in these forty-seven years where I wasn’t concerned, almost obsessed with whether my life was pleasing to God. Even when I was “far from Him” and not living exactly as I ought…I was aware of Him and always made my way back in short time. I kept short accounts with God and never liked the feeling of distance or silence between us.
But now…it’s mechanical now. I can never retreat into a life of sin and debauchery…my faith roots run too deep. But the longing in my heart, the desire for something mystical, the feeling of a “personal” relationship has faded. God has retreated to His throne room and I am out here in the world, battling on my own. I guess what’s so scary to me about this is that I don’t even feel bad about it. I’m not even mad at Him for this. I was. I was angry that He would abandon me when life has taken such a toll. But I even got over that.
It’s sad to me that my relationship with God now has simply become one of accepted distance. I can’t imagine Him stepping in and helping me. I can’t pray to Him with even the slightest shred of confidence that He is going to intervene. I feel like He’s just watching, uninvolved, unaffected, unimpassioned. Just watching. Untouched by my struggles, offering only the encouragement “to just keep trying to figure it out.” Telling me -in a somewhat subtle manner-- that I’m on my own.
Just like my father.
That this would all happen at Christmas is heartbreaking. I love this time of year and for the very first time in fifty-six years I am entirely untouched by Christmas. The tree in my living room is just a thing. The Nativity scenes I see on display everywhere I look, are just figurines, barely visible through this fog, and no longer holding the sacred magic they once held.
The arrival of Jesus once moved me so deeply that I wrote an entire Advent book about it. A book I can’t even read this year. The movies I loved, the songs I sang, the lights and ornaments and traditions…have all faded. I have lost connection to the child this holiday celebrates and in doing so…the entire holiday has gone as flat as a failed souffle.
My Christmas without Jesus is drudgery. It’s painful. It’s sad and sorrowful and…pointless.
But I can’t change that right now. I have only recently, maybe in the last three days or so, begun to even have brief conversations with God. I guess that’s praying, but it isn’t very sacred. In fact, it’s been rather profane at times. I’m not mad at Him. I don’t hate God. I’ve simply accepted that, while He was infinitely concerned with my eternal salvation, my physical life and the trials I face and these hard things I’ve had to endure, simply aren’t something He involves Himself with. I don’t know if I should be worried about the fact that I feel this way, or that it doesn’t even bother me anymore.
Maybe it’s because I know what I’m missing, but I feel badly for people trying to have something of a Christmas spirit without a recognition of Christ. From my battered, jaundiced perspective, distant as I feel, I still recognize that without that essential element, this holiday is the most disappointing of all.
I’m a believer who no longer believes as much as I did. I’m a follower who no longer feels like he’s being led. My deep relationship with God has cooled. I’m a Christian at Christmas, who has lost his connection with Christ.
This has drained all the meaning from these days and left me drained as well.