The Darker Side of Christmas
Last week I sat in a coffee shop across the street from Louisiana Christian College. I go there frequently to utilize their generous “guest borrower” program available to local pastors. It is a nice resource when preaching from a book for which I do not own commentaries. (I mean, who owns a commentary on Habakkuk?) After I had checked out the books I needed, I made my way across the street to the aforementioned coffee shop, as I often do. I received my order and unpacked my things, then popped in my earphones. Thanksgiving had just passed, so it was finally time to enjoy some Christmas music. Out of seasonal habit I located one of the greatest Christmas albums of all time on my iTunes, Kenny G’s Miracles.
Before my eclectic music tastes cause you to question the wisdom of considering anything I have to write, let me explain. My random taste in music is an inherited trait. I only realized it recently, when I thought back to my childhood and remembered the various musical genres dad listened to. He even tolerated rap, if only to embarrass my 12-year-old self with his version of the “Bankhead Bounce,” performed enthusiastically while waiting at a stoplight. Kenny G’s Miracles album was the portion of Dad’s world of peculiar music to which we made pilgrimage every Christmas season. My father loved Christmas, and so the smooth tones of Kenny G’s soprano saxophone became the soundtrack that serenated us as we decorated the tree, made sugar cookies, or watched Dad set up his Victorian Christmas scene composed of Dickens Village collectibles.
I say all of this so you will understand why when I turned Kenny G’s Christmas album last week, things were different. The expected wave of nostalgia and good memories was there, but so was something else. While I had every intention of using the time to focus on getting some work done, instead I became locked in a struggle to fend off the overwhelming urge to “ugly cry” right there in front of everyone. For the first time I was experiencing what I had seen so many others have to navigate—the darker side of Christmas.
Dad passed away on July 25. It is something we were able to see coming for quite some time. He had been diagnosed with stage IV cancer in January of 2013. At that point it was hard to envision having more than one or two Christmases left with him. Instead, the Lord blessed us with five. While I am grateful that we had longer with Dad post-diagnosis than anyone initially thought possible, it does not take away the pain that comes with the realization that this year there will be no tacky Christmas tree decorated in Dad’s vintage taste with large, multi-colored lights.
For the first time in my life I am having to balance the grief that comes with loss and the joy of the Christmas season. For the first time in my life I understand, on more than simply an intellectual level, the reason why some people seldom smile this time of year. And maybe for the first time in my life, I understand on an existential level the need for Christmas. Yes, there is an emptiness as we celebrate without someone who brought so much life to the season. But for me these is also a fresh understanding that Jesus entered our world so that he might experience the emptiness himself, and ultimately remedy it.
There are no references to Jesus’s earthly father Joseph in the accounts of Jesus’s adult life. This leads me to believe that at some point Jesus experienced the same thing I am experiencing now. We know it wasn’t the Christmas blues Jesus experienced, but could it have been the Passover malaise? Could it have been the experience of progressing to Jerusalem for a festival, with the feeling that something wasn’t right? Could it have been the palpable tension of celebrating the great story of Israel’s redemption from servitude in Egypt, while feeling enslaved by sorrow? While all we can do is speculate, it is speculation that brings me great comfort. It contextualizes the thought expressed by the author of Hebrews that “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15 ESV).
I am by nature a private person. I love to talk, socialize, and enjoy the company of others, but seldom do I share my innermost thoughts. Like my eclectic taste in music, it’s a trait I inherited from my dad. I share my seasonal struggle with you now only because for me, it reinforces the purpose of the season. Jesus was born because we die. Jesus entered our world so that we would not be haunted by the ghosts of Christmases past, but instead could experience Christmas as a future hope, anchored in the past event of Christ’s birth. This year, Christmas is about more than what has happened; it is an anticipation of what will happen. It is about more than Christ’s coming into our world 2,000 years ago; it is an anticipation of his coming into our world once again. I eagerly await that day when “the trumpet of the Lord shall sound, and time shall be no more.” Until then, as I await the good that will be, I’ll listen to Kenny G’s soprano sax, remembering the good that was.