Christmas is such a massive cultural experience in our nation, and we have developed a very pervasive image of the ideal, perfect Christmas. This image is made up of a combination of things -- certainly the Christmas stories written by Charles Dickens in the 19th century are a part of it; and the American lithographers Nathaniel Currier and James Ives who created ideal scenes of American life that have been painted on Christmas china and glassware for many years. Norman Rockwell paintings and TV Christmas specials also contribute to this picture that we all have of what Christmas OUGHT to be.
In this ideal image, a rosy-cheeked family comes laden with brightly wrapped packages to gather around a lighted Christmas tree where they sing songs, and laugh, and play games and drink eggnog to each other's health and happiness.
This picture of the ideal family Christmas is one that we seek every year to emulate, hoping that our family will gather together in peace and love; enjoying each other's company, toasting each other's health, affirming our solidarity and success as a family.
But for many people, this Christmas will probably not be a time of perfect peace, joy and love. There are those for whom family relationships are sometimes a little rocky; and those for whom the year has brought some troubles that will shadow the Christmas celebration. Most families I know of have troubles. In some families the Christmas celebration will be accompanied by an undercurrent of loss; or sorrow; or anxiety; or disappointment; or fear -- maybe even of desperation.
The prophet Isaiah spoke to the family of Israel seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus, and we find that he also speaks to a lot of people in our time and our place. He offers words of hope that we can appropriate for ourselves this Christmas. Isaiah says, "I have been called by God to bring good news to the poor; to bind up the brokenhearted, to liberate the captives, to pour healing on the wounded, to liberate the imprisoned, to comfort those who mourn." Jesus himself quoted these very words, and they became the foundation stone of his earthly ministry. [Luke 4:16]
Isaiah continued to address the poor, the brokenhearted; the people who are captive to the circumstances of their lives and their history. He says he has been given the task of bringing to them "a garland instead of ashes -- the oil of gladness instead of mourning." [Isaiah 61:1-3]
This is a beautiful image of reversing troubles and turning them into joy of making things new again. Ashes are a sign of mourning. A person would sprinkle ashes on their head when they were in mourning. Through the Prophet, God promises to those who are in mourning to replace the ashes with a garland, such as what would be placed on the head of the victor in a race. It is a sign of joy and celebration.
All the signs and symbols of death, and mourning and sorrow and defeat will be replaced by symbols of joy and victory and celebration.
The Hebrew people heard this promise and misunderstood it; they expected the Messiah-to-come would smash their enemies and make them victors in the world -- that the Messiah would help them to come out the winners among the nations around them. That is certainly what they wanted.
In the same way there is a danger, as we read these words of promise, and claim them for ourselves as children of God, that we might expect Christ to give us the Charles Dickens/Currier and Ives Christmas image of the successful, well-dressed well-behaved family, toasting each other's health and success. It is very tempting for us to see our comfort as God's greatest blessing and to see pain and struggle as glaring signs of God's failure.
But the fact is that so often, life upsets us with its confusion, frustration and pain, but always God remains the rock, certain, solid, fixed -- using this world's pain and disarray to drive us onto the solid ground of his kingdom. It is a new heaven and a new earth that God has promised to make one day, not simply an old one cleaned up and polished a bit.
Jesus' life and ministry were among the poor and the hurting, not so much among the people who had it all together. His ministry was among the most needy and the most sorrowful. His greatest victory came when he was crucified by the very same powerful people whom the Hebrews had expected him to defeat.
Following a messiah like that, how can we expect to have our Christmas look like an etching on a 19th century china plate?
Jesus lives life with us right in the hurly-burly messiness of life-as-it-actually-is, and life-as-it-actually-is, sometimes includes trouble, loss, mourning, disappointment, fear, and desperation.
The Currier and Ives Christmas is a lovely image for our Christmas china and glassware. But it isn't ever the way life really is for more than perhaps a moment in time. It is foolish to put extra pressure on ourselves to live up to an unrealistic ideal.
This year, some people will be having their first Christmas since the death of a much loved person. Some will be having Christmas in the midst of anxiety; and fear and loneliness, and uncertainty about the future. In some homes there has been divorce or separation. In some, children are not home for the first time. In some families a serious illness will be a part of their Christmas. For others there is unfinished family business; and hidden secrets.
Those are real aspects of life; and so they become real aspects of Christmas. When we place ourselves among the company of those who struggle with these very real issues, we know ourselves as the people on whom Christ's sacrificial life was centered. We confess ourselves to be the needy people who greet and adore the babe in the manger.
The garland of joy with which Christ clothes us comes from a deep assurance that the incongruities and contradictions and struggles and the messiness of life are all held within the loving expanse of God's embrace.
For any who are facing a difficult time in your life this Christmas, I encourage you to read this passage from Isaiah 61 to claim the promises that are offered there.
Remember that the babe born in the manger was born for you. Remember that the baby born in the manger died for you. He was born and died so that He could be with you in this time -- and every time -- so that he could turn the ashes of your mourning into the garland of joy.
Christmas joy and blessing to all of you,