Some friends of mine know that I play the piano at a local church, and recently asked me what the church had going on for Christmas. “My mother’s going to be here,” one explained, tentatively. “She’s coming in Christmas eve, probably late.” Neither he nor his wife are church-goers, and so for them, it’s pretty much an ordinary day.
I told them about the Lessons and Carols on December 26th, describing the service as best I could. “It’s very traditional,” I said. “The readings go back to, ummmm, well, the fall of humanity, and go through all the prophets, the predictions that things are going to get better, until finally, it all ends up on Christmas morning.”
“That sounds terrible,” my friends might well have said. But they’re polite. “Oh, okay,” one said. “Thank you,” nodded the other. They each gave me a careful smile, exchanging quick glances at each other.
“It’s very traditional,” I repeated. I had a feeling that my enthusiasm for the format hadn’t really gained traction. “Lots of singing,” I added. “That’ll be fun, right?”
It’s kind of hard to make a case for Christmas. Since the middle of November, every shopping center’s been dreaming of a White Christmas, ringing Silver Bells, or worse, filled with Chipmunks catching Mommy kissing Santa Claus. It’s a noisy season, when even parking lots are loud with choirs demanding “Come, let us adore Him.”
At my house and at yours, we’re bringing out the old decorations, just like we always have, year after year. There’s a box in the attic, a trunk in the garage, a drawer in the guest bedroom filled with handmade balls and collages, Styrofoam forms showing through where pins have fallen, sequins come unglued. Advent calendars are hung, their little windows falling open and shut. Silvery tinsel, hand-stitched decorations, colored lights, fresh holly arranged on the mantelpiece…they’re all so beautiful. And yet it will be such a relief to clear all that away again. Nobody can wait for Christmas, but “I can’t wait till it’s all just back to normal,” becomes a common refrain, repeated to one another as we stand in the checkout line.
The hardest thing about Christmas is also the best: it’s the hope, the expectation even, that this year we’ll get it right. That maybe this year, we’ll feel just as joyful as the songs we memorized as children insist that we must be. Joy to the World! The Lord has Come! But nothing changes; every year, nothing changes. All is calm, all is bright. This Christmas binds itself to all the Christmases that have come before, the ones that will come again, and nothing changes. We’ll put gift wrapping in the trash, drive into town for a matinee, eat turkey sandwiches in front of the television for supper. It’ll be an ordinary day after all. We’ll have the tree down by the end of the week.
Which is, also, I believe, the point. It’s an ordinary day, but one that’s imbued with hope. The days leading up to Christmas are full of readying, tortuous preparations, long lines and credit cards, because this time, maybe, we’ll get it right. We’ll buy the right thing, and, in return, someone will give us exactly what we’ve always wanted. Because that’s the way hope is spelled here, in this time, and in this place.
A friend of mine has, as he puts it, given far more thought to the game of tag than anybody reasonably should. As a child, he didn’t understand the rules of the game. Being a thoughtful sort of person, he kept thinking about it. The game of tag became, for him, a metaphor of almost unspeakable beauty. In his version, people just pretend that being “it” isn’t desirable, when in fact it is. Being “it” is like a gift that people pass back and forth between each other. Ultimately, my friend decided, you tag someone not to make them “it” but to remind them that they already are.
Maybe holy days are God’s way of playing tag with us, a reminder that what we’ve hoped for is already here. Every child, every single one of us, is, as we’ve been reminded, a child of God. We’re born, like the Christ child, to die. We’re loved beyond telling, and there’s nothing we can do that isn’t good enough. We can’t make ourselves unloved, or unlovable, or immortal. Regardless of how we spend it, the day will pass, and it will be, at the end, an ordinary day: a day that Christ is born.