December 25, 2018 by J. Truett Glen
I’m not one to build expectations, but I didn’t see Christmas going this way this year. Those that know me know that I love rich cultural traditions, and especially those related to Christmas. I’m a sucker for squeezing every ounce of deep meaning out of the holiday schedule. Generally speaking, I think this is a positive characteristic that I hold. I see the deep meaning of life, imparted to us by our Creator, and I want to mine it, explore it, and present it in creative ways to my family and community. I have a sort of “Christmas-feeling-meter” that tests each day, discerning if I’ve invested enough to reflect what I know to be transcendent and beautiful. But, as some of you (especially my wife and kids) have possibly observed, I can get a bit focused on “plans” at times. I mean well, but there’s a temptation always sitting outside my door during these seasons, waiting to distract me from the point of it all.
We had plans. I had plans. I’m exhausted after a long semester of fulfilling multiple responsibilities with long hours each day, and I was looking forward to rest and festivities. I was looking forward to enjoying the precious time with my wife, daughters, and especially my visiting mother, who I’ve not seen in two years. I had plans for shopping on the 23rd, watching movies with my kids on the 24th, and having clam chowder on Christmas Eve before meditating on the birth of Christ and opening presents. I had plans to watch my energetic daughters run down the stairs to open their stockings on Christmas morning before cooking a duck and some Cornish hens for Christmas dinner. I had plans to head up to Charlottesville tomorrow for my birthday, and shopping at my favorite clothing store for the great after-Christmas-deals. I had plans….
Then the flu came to our house on the 22nd. When my mother told me, on the 23rd, that she couldn’t breathe, I knew what it meant. After taking my mother to the emergency room, staying with her all day, and then coming home to an increasingly sick wife and daughters, I knew what it meant. It meant that my plans were gone. As the week progressed with little change in these challenging circumstances, it meant that the rest I sought would not be present with me this holiday season. I began to get frustrated and even a bit angry. I’m tired, and what I really want is to go away for a month with my family to a cabin in the Swiss Alps with a fireplace and plenty of food and drink. But I was going to settle for second best, a wonderful time with my family over my week of vacation. I was having to fight away the thought that it was more important for me to get this rest and to celebrate these customs than it was for me to serve. The Gospel of Matthew reports to us an episode between Jesus and the Pharisees that came to my memory while I was internally struggling with my circumstances. Matthew writes,
“At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath, and His disciples became hungry and began to pick the heads of grain and eat. But when the Pharisees saw this, they said to Him, “Look, Your disciples do what is not lawful to do on a Sabbath.” But He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he became hungry, he and his companions, how he entered the house of God, and they ate the consecrated bread, which was not lawful for him to eat nor for those with him, but for the priests alone? Or have you not read in the Law, that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath and are innocent? But I say to you that something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire compassion, and not a sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”” (Matthew 12:1-8, NASB)
We are built to see the deep meaning in our lives. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans that an awareness of who God is present within us, because he’s the one that gave us physical and spiritual eyes to see his presence. Knowing that our worlds should revolve around him, it should be natural for us to explore how to reflect the beauty of that reality in our calendar, work, art, and relationships. That’s why Christmas is so important to me. But that’s also why the Sabbath was so important to the Pharisees. But they forgot the purpose of it all. They began to worship creation rather than the Creator. No, they weren’t bowing down to animals and Greek gods, but they were bowing down to schedules and extra-biblical guidelines. In their effort to zealously protect the customs of the people of Israel, they forgot what they were there for.
It’s important to create narratives, events, and customs that creatively point our individual and collective attention to our good Creator, but it’s important that we remind ourselves in the midst of these festive and beautiful days that our God, our family, and our neighbors are more important than the exact details of how we plan on celebrating this year. I’ve seen an opportunity to serve my wife, daughters, and mother over the past three days that have challenged me to be more like Christ, and less beholden to my preferences. I’ve been reminded of the constant opportunity to sacrifice and to trust God with my rest. I’m not owed rest, and I’m not the Lord of my own rest. I’m called to be a servant and to let Christ guide me into a deep rest that resides in my relationship with him, that might manifest itself from time to time in sweet physical and psychological rest this side of Heaven.
Christmas is a deeply meaningful and beautiful time for me, and I’ll probably plan something similar next year. But hopefully, I’ll be a bit more cautious as the holidays approach, making sure that the two great commandments are well situated within my plans and my heart: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets”” (Matthew 22: 37-39). So, with all this in mind, I wish you and yours a Merry Christmas, because it truly is a deeply meaningful custom that points to a great sacrifice that we’re all invited to participate in by our God.
Jason Truett Glen