I love the beauty of Christmas. As I write, the Hester home is already decorated for the season: Tree lighted, stockings hung, Advent candles set, epiphanic angel figurines placed on the mantle, poinsettias tactically placed so they’re not toppled by the dog when he barrels through the house with a toy in his mouth. My playlist has on it Christmas standards from Andy Williams and Harry Connick, Jr., along with smooth jazzy arrangements by the likes of Duke Ellington and the Chick Corea Elektric Band. I adore mistletoe. I drink eggnog by the gallon.
Part of the allure of this kind of Currier & Ives Christmas is the nostalgia. We often sentimentalize the past, and nothing does that better than a well appointed Christmas. The biggest attraction of this Christmas image, though, is that it promises to remove us from our pains, our problems, our failures. It’s the most wonderful time of the year, largely because everything is–literally and figuratively–decorated to portray a certain happiness. We are sold on a vision of Christmas that makes us feel good. And I love that image.
But I need the ugliness of Christmas.
Read the opening chapters of Matthew and Luke and you immediately encounter a lot of ugliness: When angels show up with a message, they’re so horrifying their first proclamation is “Fear not!”; Mary, from the human point of view, has broken nearly every socioreligious taboo a teenage Jewess can; Mary and Joseph are impoverished and nomadic; Jesus’ birthplace is the manured roughness of a livestock stable; a king slaughters countless baby boys to get at the newborn Jesus.
This isn’t “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town”.
It is real. It’s the Christmas of political violence and hunger. It’s the Christmas of homelessness and ostracism. It’s the Christmas of religious doubt. And that’s precisely why I need it. I need this Christmas ugliness because that is the world I live in, that is the place where I find myself. The world I see appears broken beyond repair, and I myself often feel broken beyond repair. I don’t recognize the Norman Rockwell Christmas so much, but I do recognize the Matthean Christmas, the Lukan Christmas.
This is the world into which the Christ child is born. This is the world the Christ child redeems. And there’s the kicker: If we limit ourselves to the surficial pleasantries of holiday open houses and reruns of Perry Como’s Christmas specials, we constrain that redemptive power. Avoiding the dark places is avoiding the One in those dark places. If we confess those dark places, however, if we stare headlong into those hurts and tragedies, we find Christmas in its power and real-ness–that God-is-with-us, no matter the darkness, and he means to change it.
And that, to paraphrase on old U2 song, makes beauty of ugliness.