This is the time of year for tradition. Rightly fitting then, every year around Christmastime, my wife and I will inevitably have our traditional conversation about what we think of the holidays.
As for me, I usually end up slightly on the “holly jolly” side of the scale. My childhood memories of Christmas involve multicolored lights, snow, big meals, visiting grandparents, sleepovers, a much-needed break from school, presents, church plays, and…well, you get the idea. While no holiday season was ever Hallmark-movie-perfect for our family growing up, we made plenty of good memories and created a lasting sense of wonder that has carried on to this day. And I very much look forward to making new traditions with my family now.
My wife, however, readily admits that she is slightly on the “Ebenezer Scrooge” side. Her seasonal memories are a little different from mine. Growing up the child of parents who were involved in full-time ministry as missionaries, her mom and dad always did a great job of trying to keep their traditions going; yet the season was also typically jam-packed with events, leaving less time for rest or enjoyment. Thus, the holiday season and its frantic pace, not to mention her growing frustrations with its inundation with materialism and commercialism, continue to cast a Ghost of Christmas Past-like shadow over her expectations.
So, the question we keep coming back to leads us here: Where can our expectations meet, and how can we find a way forward for both of our perspectives? I think the answer is found, simply, in the idea of the home not yet reached.
In his sermon on the new heaven and the new earth, Tim Keller mentions the idea of Sehnsucht that German Romantic poets wrote about. The term “represents thoughts and feelings about all facets of life that are unfinished or imperfect, paired with a yearning for ideal alternative experiences.”1 Keller describes it as “a longing for a family you’ve never had, a body you’ve never had, a home you’ve never had, or a beach, mountain or world you’ve never had.”
Many of our collective traditions around the holidays are tied into this idea of nostalgic longing. Those of us with generally good memories can easily magnify in our minds the events of the past, and then obsessively desire to recreate them in the present. Still, neither the present nor the past can live up to our ideals. At their worst, the holidays can become completely inward-focused and selfish without any spiritual reflection at all, even at times becoming a social media competition to see who can be the most merry and bright. But at their best, holiday traditions and the celebrations of the season are a flittering foretaste of the joy of the better feasts and celebrations with family that will be had around the eternal table of the Lamb.
Is it “the most wonderful time of the year”?
There are many who approach the holiday season, however, with dread. My father was (and still is) a deacon at my childhood church, and he had the privilege of visiting various church members in their homes over the years. Occasionally I would tag along on some visits, and one of my favorite places was Mrs. Callie’s. She was already in her 90s when dad started visiting her, and she was still surprisingly spry for her age. She would cook some of the most amazing homemade food for us and always set out a spread when we came to visit.
Yet, one thing Mrs. Callie in all her sweetness didn’t do was get into the holiday spirit. Her son was a soldier in the Vietnam War, and sadly, he died there. She was given the tragic news around Christmastime; thus, the holidays were never the same for her. For me as a kid, the idea that there could be someone who wouldn’t want to celebrate Christmas was completely new. It was a much-needed lesson in reality.
The effects of pain and loss
In a sin-wracked world, there are many reasons why some might not want to celebrate whole-heartedly. Even for me in all of my appreciation of the season, there are still moments of grief mixed in. While my wife and I were setting up the tree this year, we opened a box of ornaments. On top was a carved wooden angel, holding a little boy in his jammies. The ornament was given to us by a couple in memory of our son that died at 17 weeks in the womb. My wife and I cried together in knowing silence for a few moments, thinking about the “what-if’s” had he lived, and then wiped the tears away and helped our girls finish decorating the tree.
With all of its complications, this year surely doesn’t look anything like the holiday season of our dreams. Still, if you are able to celebrate with family around a roaring hearth with stockings hung and full to the brim, then celebrate joyfully with the hopeful foreword-looking assurance that there will be much better celebrations to come in the new heaven and in the new earth.
But if you are facing empty chairs and a Christmas of unexpected loss and grief, if you are struggling to even put food on the table at all, if you find yourself separated from loved ones, or if instead of a roaring fire of plenty you only find a candle, blown about by the wind and flickering desperately…take hope. The loss and brokenness have been undone by the Lamb who was slain. Jesus will wipe away our tears and will heal the void left in our hearts, abundantly supplying the peace, rest, feast, and finally the home that we cannot make, much less keep for ourselves in this world as it is. We only have to wait together, and hold on to Jesus, and each other, a short while longer.