This time of year always seems to throw what is important in our lives into stark relief.
I don’t know about you but it’s usually bitter-sweet for me. I love this time of year, and at the same time I earnestly look forward to life settling back into ‘normal’ mode.
Most of us spend a lot more time with our family and friends in December and early January than in other parts of the year.
We reflect over the past year, and make plans for the new one. Mostly this is awesome, but not every moment is awesome!
Parties and special outings and dinners and gift-buying and giving are all fun and blessed by people’s love and generosity. But they also have their stressful (sometimes enormously stressful) moments when there are small children involved, multiple late nights, and everyone has high expectations to be fulfilled of any one occasion, and of their relationships in general.
I used to think that these were just things to be endured, part of Christmas time that I should forget as quickly as possible and just retain memories of the good stuff – the beautiful liturgy, the beautiful children, the beautiful dresses, the beautiful food, and the beautiful present opening!
But now I wonder how much I have missed part of the point of Christmas.
Because if my ideal Christmas week is all and only beautiful, then at best it is a hope of future heaven, and at worst it’s a simulacrum, a fake.
Either way, I need to get deeper into the reality of Christmas as I’m meant to live it here at home with the family and friends God has given me.
I’ve often reflected on the darkness around the birth of Jesus; St Joseph’s initial distress over Mary’s pregnancy, their arduous journey to Bethlehem, the innkeeper’s refusal, Herod’s intrigue and murder of the baby boys, the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt, Simeon’s prophecy.
The Gospel writers who covered the conception to early infancy of Jesus didn’t gloss over these difficulties and horrors. St John was the most explicit in referring to the darkness into which Jesus, the Light of the world, was made incarnate.
But I’ve never made the connection with my own personal experience of Christmas before. Every Christmas of my life has been a happy and blessed one, but each one has also involved some experience of stress, disappointment, jealousy, or frustration. This year we will be missing some family members as well, who died during the year.
Rather than trying to limit, play down, repress and forget these negative aspects, focusing only on trying to recreate the bright, brittle, commercialised version of Christmas we see in nearly all the media, maybe it’s best to keep as my Christmas week mantra: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:5)
St John didn’t write that the darkness is gone with the arrival of Christ – it is definitely still here. He calls us to notice not just the light of Christ though that is most important, but the darkness as well, and, primarily, the way the light shines within it.
There is no such thing as a ‘good’ Christmas despite the annoying or heart-breaking bits that we are better off ignoring or pushing away or forgetting. Christmas is always overwhelmingly good, and the darkness will always be there as part of it until the very last Christmas day.
I can try to be peaceful through all that happens this Christmas, both the good and the bad, since however it plays out is God’s will for me this time around and his steady light is always within me.
And especially as a Christian I am called to be (as far as possible in the darkness of my own weakness, and especially in this Year of Mercy) not a shiny, blinged-up bauble reflecting artificial Christmas joy but a steady Christ-light in the dark parts of the lives of my family and friends.