Unmasking Christmas: glad tidings in grief
Legend has it that we should deck the halls and tote the red and green splendor of Christmas out after Thanksgiving. Most of us remember the rush and the merriment of our childhood Christmases appearing far later than what we see now, which are lit, artificial trees, blow-up Santas, glittery snowmen and jolly reindeer out on display as early as September 2020.
“What is this?” I asked years ago when I saw gingerbread houses and Jesus wrapping paper in stores before Halloween. Like you, I felt robbed. Cheated. The sequence of our holidays was being squished, pushed too soon. Christmas is Christmas, the thinking went. Nothing before.
Technically Advent, the season before Christmas, follows the gobble gobble day. It does not come before. Because Advent prepares us for the coming of Christ, God Himself, here on earth, it’s a must-have time of preparation for Christians, especially if you ask church traditionalists. The meaning of Emmanuel, God with us, is best not to walk into casually, with little thought, or with little preparation. When given time, Advent enables us to consider, as best we can, what it means for God not only to be human, but also to be a servant for us sacrificially. The Gospel of Luke tells us the King of Kings begins in a lowly stable, not in a palace of royal proportions.
I am weeks ahead of Advent here, yes, but I think it is time to unmask what Christmas really is, and, having just used the word lowly, I believe this is a specifically poignant and painful year to do it—and do it now. Unmasking Christmas this year entails admitting our significant grief, for only in grief do we long for and deeply cherish the glad tidings of what Christmas is. Said differently, we need the darkness to see the light better.
An example of having darkness to appreciate light happens when we first put the strings of lights on our trees (assuming you didn’t buy a pre-lit one). Like the candle-lit birthday cake coming to the table in the hands of a loved one, what do often we do with tree lights? We dim the other lights around for the effect, almost the thrill, but most certainly the feeling of what? That’s right. Christmas.
For me to jump to Christmas before Advent is crazy, and I may ruffle the brow of a pastor/theologian a generation ahead of me for doing this, but this year, this year, what is needed is the understanding that, as hard as this year has been, we HAVE to unmask from darkness to light what is true, and it’s this: Our God IS with us. Starting Christmas—or, technically, Advent—in mid-November isn’t something nice to do this year. It’s needed.
No one welcomes darkness in the form of grief. “Oh, yeah! Let’s grieve!” has been said by no one ever, yet we need to understand just what this year is. As importantly, we also need to understand what this year has done to us, to all of us. To do this, I began a three-part sermon series this past Sunday called Unmasking Christmas because now, more than ever, we need Christmas. Specifically, we need to understand Christmas. We need to unmask it. By this I mean we need to—or have the opportunity to—look at Christmas with our prenotions of it off. Given the hurt and horrible pains of this, we need to get real with what this is and who we are now because of it. Maybe now, this year, we can understand in part the reason that star above Bethlehem shined so brightly in the sky. It was so dark below, so grief-filled, so heavy laden.
Honestly, I don’t know how dark it was then. I do know, however, what you know: the darkness around us this year is apparent, heavy, and inescapable, especially when we consider and should actively grieve that, as of November 7th, 240,668 Americans have died from the virus so far this year.
This is a dark time. This is a grief time. What was now isn’t. Sure, we may know where our toothbrush and toothpaste are; there may be an extra half gallon of milk in the back of the fridge; but the world we knew has shattered not completely, but it has fallen apart enough for us to feel lost, vulnerable, scared, and dazed.
Through this, it is going to be That Christmas. Masks. Social distancing. Isolation. Family and financial stressors for many. (A painful presidential election isn’t helping much, either.)
But as darkness enables more beauty with light, let this also be That Christmas, the one where, from grief of all kinds, we really do unmask what God in human form on earth has done and will do, and that is light our world from grief to goodness and glad tidings.