As we light the Christ candle today, I’m thinking of ghosts of Christmas past.
I was a teenager the year we came home from the midnight Christmas Eve service and my mother went straight into the bathroom and began vomiting. Some bug hit her hard. The next morning she valiantly tried to get up but couldn’t. We put our presents on hold and my brothers and I played board games with our father. Our fancy dinner was also postponed, so we ventured out and found an open 7-11 and our Christmas feast ended up being baloney sandwiches and Pringles. Although I’m sure my mother would disagree, I can’t remember a Christmas Day that I enjoyed more.
Years later I woke up on Christmas morning not being able to decide which was worse - the pain I could feel from a kidney stone or the shock of cold I could feel because the furnace had obviously quit working overnight. I didn’t have much time to contemplate either disaster, because it was a Sunday and I had to preach. We let our children open one present before church, and through divine providence that was the year they received sleeping bags. They wrapped themselves up and I felt like I finally understood the meaning of that obscure Christmas hymn, “Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella.”
Later that day, after the sermon had been preached and the kidney stone thankfully passed, I discovered our 3-year-old son had unscrewed a fuse on our ancient furnace. I found the fuse underneath the dryer and when I screwed it in the resulting effect was as if God had pronounced, “Let there be heat.” We laugh about that Christmas every year.
I remember those Christmases so fondly because events forced us to be real, to stop pretending we were as nicely put together as the packages under the tree. There can be something holy about Christmas messes, something akin to finding no room at the inn or putting your newborn in a feed trough. If the first Christmas wasn’t perfect, why do we need ours to be?
And then there were the unplanned events that year we were with my grandparents in a restaurant on Christmas Eve. We’d just ordered when a man stood up from another table and collapsed onto the floor. His wife screamed, “Somebody help!” A shock wave went through the crowded dining room that seemed to throw us back into our chairs. One man - my father - stood up and went to the side of the fallen man. Soon my grandfather was at his side. I was 7 and believed my father and grandfather could pretty much do anything, but still was wide-eyed when my father started performing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and saved the man’s life.
They weren’t doctors. My dad worked for General Motors and my grandfather worked for the state of Michigan. But they were willing to help. They were unlikely saviors. Unlikely as a defenseless baby that was born centuries ago in a weak country controlled by a powerful state; born out of wedlock to a teenage mother and astounded carpenter who was being asked to swallow the most incredible explanation for an unplanned pregnancy ever; laid in a manger and attended to by shepherds and maybe a donkey or two. No wonder John’s gospel says the world did not recognize him.
We light the Christ candle today because we do recognize him, our willing savior who loves us amid the messes we’ve made of our lives and is at our side when we’ve collapsed. The Christ candle shines because “in Him was life, and that life was the light of all people.” Merry, messy Christmas.
(Illustration by Schuyler Roozeboom.)