Early Friday morning I went into the garage, climbed the ladder, and retrieved the Christmas decorations. I have mixed emotions about this different, loss-tinged Christmas, and my husband, knowing this, surprised me this week with cheery holiday sofa pillows. A needed nudge.
Since Thanksgiving was a good day, I thought maybe I could manage to deck the halls as usual. Ours is not a festive family, so once a decade there are carols and everyone is involved, but most of the time it’s just me, Kid Rock, and Dr. Pepper.
The first box I brought into the kitchen contained a centerpiece and three nativities. As I unwrapped the chipped cows and broken angels, I suddenly thought, “You don’t feel reverent enough about this nativity. About baby Jesus.”
I had spent the previous evening thinking I wasn’t “thankful enough”–and hearing the echoing accompaniment, “and you’re thankful for the wrong things.” This latest revelation was just too much.
I caught myself judging my spirituality, my whole walk with God, by the fact that I wasn’t grateful enough for a cheap china statuette painted by workers in a windowless factory half a world away.
Once more, I had taken out my unfair yardstick–the one that fully measures my negatives.
This yardstick ignores things like these: a cheering Sephora shopping trip with a distressed daughter; comforting two friends after the deaths of their mothers; broccoli casserole made gluten-free upon request; a visit to a widower in a nursing home; care packages full of lip gloss and Hershey’s bars sent to New York; coffee cake cooked at dawn for my hungry husband; a catnap in a recliner while “waiting up.” Of my week’s activities that showed Christ’s love, none mattered because I didn’t fall on my face at the sight of a Dollar Tree baby Jesus.
Somehow, we now live a world where a correctly captioned Facebook photo of baby Jesus can deceive everyone, fooling the photographer and the viewers into ascribing holiness where there may, in fact, not be any.
We can see light where there is darkness, and, even worse, sometimes we aspire to be That Holy.
What is the true purpose of the misty-morning patio Instagram shot of a coffee mug, a Bible, and an open notebook with a spunky #meandJesus ? Is it crying look at me or look at Him? Could our time be better spent direct-messaging people whom we know are hurting and reminding them of Christ’s strengthening love? Could we not invite a friend for coffee and put down our cameras long enough to hold their hands in prayer?
We internalize all this, after all. It becomes the approved Christian way to do things.
Last week, I saw a Lincoln Navigator decorated like a reindeer, and immediately my brain thought, “Well, they aren’t Christians.” Christians wear “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” pins and make birthday cakes for Jesus and participate in Operation Christmas Child and sometimes even have their own in-home Advent wreaths. (If you just thought, “Hey, we could do an in-home Advent wreath!“, I apologize. Don’t join the competition.)
My family has done those things. When the girls were small, we placed Baby Jesus in April’s bedroom and daily marched him closer to Bethlehem: the nativity. In the den. In South Georgia.
We made a birthday cake for Jesus, and never, ever made cookies for Santa, gaining holiness through baked good selection, oblivious to the fact that, either way, we would be the ones eating them.
We bought surface over substance. Feeling holy over being holy. It’s so easy.
In the church, we continue to value feeling over reality. We pat ourselves on the back for our refusal to allow our kids to participate in Elf on the Shelf when we are blind, absolutely blind, to the needs of others in our community. In our church families.
If there’s one thing 2016 has taught me, it is how filthy my rags are. And how abundant. And how my value of them was influenced by a culture which considers the visible to be the valuable.
This year, visitors to our home will see snowmen and Santas; on our scorecard, there will be more tally marks in the secular Christmas column, as our angels are far outnumbered.
But this year, to quote my younger daughter, “The angels matter more than ever.”
This year, it is real to me: the fact that Christ came, that God sent Him at all, that God saw how much Nothing there was here, how little chance we all had apart from Him, apart from salvation–and at that thought, I can fall on my face.
My nativity may not move me. I may have the “wrong” attitude about Elves and Santa. But more importantly, so much more importantly, this year I know: my rags of righteousness are far filthier than anything that was in that Bethlehem stable.
This year, I know my need.
Christ in me, the only hope of Glory.