There is merriment all around us. I eat more and drink more and shop more in these few weeks than at any other time of the year. I actually go to parties. I may even stay out until midnight on New Year’s Eve.
But as I have aged, the merriment of this season has come to seem a little forced, a little fake. The whole thing can become a burden. Is our house festive enough? Have I purchased the right gifts? Can I muster the energy to go to another party? Am I doing this Christmas right? Or am I failing somehow?
In our family we used our children as an excuse to justify our excesses for many years. We told ourselves that we had to make Christmas perfect, or else our boys would be disappointed. By now, that justification is wearing pretty thin. Our boys enjoy our family Christmas traditions. But it has been years since they got really excited about Christmas. I am pretty sure they would happily settle for a big Christmas check.
So why do we do it? I don’t just mean why does my family do it? I mean, why do so many of us go a little crazy at Christmas time?
This is not just a Christmas issue. This is an American issue.
Every year we spend billions of dollars on entertainment. Every year we dedicate an enormous number of hours to channel surfing and video games and social media. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with most of this stuff. There is nothing wrong with it, until it becomes compulsive.
Unfortunately that is how I think many of us experience some of the Christmas festivities.
I don’t do all the things I do at Christmastime because I want to. I don’t do them for my children, not really. I do them because I feel like I have to. That compulsion is the problem.
In our culture, we get constant distraction. It is as if we get addicted to the distraction, as if we need to be distracted all the time.
I think compulsive Christmas merriment is just another distraction. And seen that way, it looks a lot like denial, like an effort to keep so busy that we avoid pain and fear and sin and mortality, as if that were really an option.
Every year Churches everywhere try to push back a little. We encourage people not to rush to Christmas too quickly. We encourage people to slow down, to take time for prayer and self-reflection.
That is asking a lot. Because when we let go of our distractions, when we allow ourselves to pause, when we open ourselves up to whatever we may be feeling in the moment, it can hurt. Our inner demons surface. Old wounds turn out not to be fully healed. New wounds may be almost more than we can bear.
Faced with that pain, particularly in this season, the message that we mostly get is to look away, not to think about the pain, to bury our feelings, to act like we are having a merry Christmas.
But as anyone in real pain knows, denial is no solution. There really is a time to weep and a time to mourn. That is true even, maybe especially, at Christmastime.
Certainly that was true for the holy family. In our gospel reading, we hear about Mary going through the rite of purification that all pious Jewish women underwent after giving birth.
Enter Simeon. Simeon takes the baby Jesus in his arms and praises God. Simeon gives thanks that God has allowed him to see the salvation that God has prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to God’s people Israel. It is a glorious moment.
And then Simeon turns to Mary. And Simeon is too honest, and too full of the Spirit, to leave it at that. Simeon warns Mary, “a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
What a privilege to give birth to the Christ, the Son of God. And what pain his mother will know.
What was true for Mary is true for all of us.
Christmas is a time of joy, the joy of seeing our Lord and Savior in the flesh, the joy of knowing that we are ourselves beloved children of God, the joy that comes from new and renewed intimacy with God.
But there is pain too. The pain of Christ on the cross. The pain of his mother who has to watch him die. The pain of his disciples, who abandon and betray their beloved Master. The pain, and the wounds, and the fear, and the loneliness that beset all of us. All of that pain is part of Christmas.
This service is a chance for us to acknowledge the pain that is somehow a part of our Christmas, just like it has been from the beginning.
For many of us, it may have to stop there, at least for now.
But even in our pain, we can take some comfort in the fact that we know how this story ends, and it ends well.
On that first Christmas, in response to our pain and hurt, Christ entered into our pain and hurt, and Christ walked through pain and hurt all the way to the cross.
In Christ, God himself becomes our companion as we walk our own road, through the ups and downs of life to our inevitable deaths.
But death is NOT the end of the story. Death is not the end for Christ. Death is not the end for the people we love. Death is not the end for us.
On the other side of death is the new life of resurrection, new life that Christ makes possible, new life that God invites us to experience even now.
For Christians, Christmas is not a time for superficial merriment, as if pain were not real.
But Christmas is a time for deep joy, joy that does not deny our suffering in a desperate effort to be merry, but rather accepts suffering as an inevitable part of human life; joy that God accompanies us even as we suffer; joy that affirms, in the face of suffering, the possibility of new life, with God’s help.
And so, on this afternoon, we acknowledge the time of darkness. The Advent candles symbolizing hope and peace and joy and love are not lit.
But thanks be to God, light comes even now, in a dark time and to a hurting people.
And so we use the light of the Christ candle to light the candles of hope and peace and joy and love. We use the Christ candle to light the other candles as a statement of our faith that Christ gives us new hope and peace and joy and love, no matter how dark things may be.
And on this day, we give thanks to God for the new life to come for all of us, through his grace and love as revealed to us in the Christ child, in the agony of the cross, and in the power of the resurrection. Amen.