Finding Christmas

The first two weeks of Advent this year felt like a whirlwind romance. I was swept off my feet with the joy and wonder of the season and re-smitten with the character of Jesus, my heart injected with a much-needed thrill of hope. I purchased an Advent book a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving, and was faithful to the readings that escorted my heart into the sacred space of remembering. I reflected joyfully on the truth of Christmas in front of my cat-terrorized, white lights tree and a candle that wafted smells of cranberry throughout my apartment.

But then, somewhere between the second and third Sunday of Advent, the romance spiraled and the warm, butterfly feelings proved to be fragile and unsustainable in the face of reality. I fell behind on my reading and, after a backpack run-in with an opened bottle of water in New York City, the pretty, clean corners of my Advent book suffered the dooming fate of water damage. Black fingerprint smudges now line the cover and I am still on week 3 of Advent two days before Christmas.

This is not what Christmas is supposed to look like.

I was scheduled to fly from Nashville to Phoenix this past Tuesday. My parents relocated from my childhood home in Chicago to Arizona the Friday after Thanksgiving, and I was all set to jet off to my first Christmas away from the Midwest. But, in perhaps one of the most embarrassing and intense turn of events, I cancelled my flight and decided to drive instead. My nervousness about flying escalated into an all-out, weeklong war with anxiety that begged me to salvage my sanity long enough to complete the holiday season with some normalcy. A good majority of the 30-hour drive out west was spent berating myself for taking the easy way out and shaking my fist at God because I felt abandoned by the only one who is capable of untangling my heart from the grip of violent fear.

This is not what Christmas is supposed to look like.

Christmas takes place in a northwest suburb of Chicago that has been kissed gently with snowfall and harmonizing carolers. It is train rides into the city and Macy’s window displays. It is midnight mass and a real tree that fills the house with the smell of pine and my 8-year-old nephew opening the Nerf Guns on Christmas morning that he will inevitably practice using on me. It is my cousins and I catching up over late-night tea and Phase 10 in a powder blue kitchen.

This is not what Christmas is supposed to look like.

My heart has sulked in this phrase for a week and a half now. It has been deeply disappointed that the snow didn’t fall and the anxiety didn’t let up and that my grandpa is no longer around to lead Silent Night on Christmas Eve before mass. I feel like Cindy Lou Who who repeatedly questions where Christmas has run off to through dramatic song. Advent is a time of sacred remembering, a time where our hearts get to soak in the truth of a God who chose to be with us, but the truth is, sometimes it is hard to remember. Sometimes God’s promise of being Emmanuel feels far and the light feels dim and holding out hope feels impossibly hard.

And it has been in this place, this place of despair and sadness and shame, that I wonder if I have landed myself in the very essence of that which I have been fighting so hard to preserve. I wonder if my idealism surrounding the holiday season has kept me from experiencing the deep realities of Advent. With the comfort of all things I consider Christmas stripped away, I wonder if I may have just stumbled my way into the very real Christmas story.

The world was suspended in darkness. Hearts filled with the fear that God’s promise to gift us a savior was made in vain. People moving on from hopeful waiting to take things into their own hands. God is clearly not going to do anything, so I’ll go ahead and be my own savior, thank you very much. Oh, how often this is my heart. 

But oh, how he showed up anyway.

Born into a world that was afraid to hope. Born into a world that was sick and tired of waiting. Born into hearts that only know how to be unfaithful—he showed up. This is my story. This is the Christmas story. To know our need, to know the darkness, to know the pain of holding onto hope when it would be easier to take things into our own hands. It is not the romantic, whimsical, watching-snowfall-next-to-a-Christmas-tree story that we often make it out to be. It is a messy, dirty manger and God entering into our circumstances as a helpless baby. It is the fullness of our humanity being embraced by a God who orchestrates our joy and deeply understands our pain and sadness. It is waiting and waiting and waiting and then God showing up just as he promised, being greeted only by our disbelief. 

The sweetness of this story is that it does not ask me to suck it up and grow some holiday spirit to preserve my postcard version of Christmas. It acknowledges the fullness of my humanity—my sadness and shame and joy—and shows up in the midst of it. Jesus acknowledges the darkness and then kindly reminds me of his success rate at being the light.

It is a gift, as much as I’d often rather not receive it, to be confronted with my deep need for a savior. To be smacked in the face with crippling anxiety and untimely sadness is an invitation to lean into who God actually is this Christmas season. For the veil of what I think Christmas is supposed to look like to be lifted is to give me the clearest vision to see the heart-turning, earth shaking, awe-inspiring reality of Advent. And it is exactly what Christmas is supposed to look like.