And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” – Revelation 21:3-4
Some of my fondest Christmas memories involve lying stretched out beside my siblings in the back of our ’79 Caprice Estate wagon, seats laid down to make a bed, Mom lying across the bench seat, asleep with her head on Dad’s lap while he drove all night through yet another Upper Michigan snowstorm. He promised to wake us up to see the Mackinac Bridge, and if we begged him, he’d drive on the grating in the middle lane so we could pop a door open and stare down at the water hundreds of feet below. Mom never really understood the joy of that gift. Never for a moment did I consider even it a possibility we wouldn’t arrived at Gramma’s safely. There’s not a blizzard in the world Dad couldn’t drive through, so when we hit one that was so bad he pulled off in Marquette to spend the night at the Super8, I still think it was probably more because he wanted to let us swim in the pool. Of course, we didn’t pack swim trunks, and ShopKo in Marquette doesn’t sell them in December, so as I recall we bought boxer shorts, swam in them. Good memories, happy days.
When I was seven, Christmas meant not having to worry about the very few difficulties of life I did have, like the calamity of having pea soup for lunch or having schoolwork to do, and all the best parts of life came in bucketloads: presents, food, lights, trees, and Gramma’s house, which meant popcorn balls and windmill cookies. Christmas had that childish innocence to it, a joyful oblivion to the existence of anything painful. All laughter, no tears. That’s what Christmas was, and even if I didn’t appreciate it, I loved it.
Now I’m a grown-up. I have to drive, my van doesn’t have bench seats so my wife sits a mile away, the kids have to be in seventy point harnesses and can’t just stretch out and sleep, and snowstorms somehow seem more menacing than when Dad drove through them. Gramma and Grampa died, and to top it off, stuffing my face with ham leaves me with just a twinge of guilt, making it a little less fun than it was thirty years and a hundred-fifty pounds ago.
My Christmas memories aren’t quite as pleasant anymore either. I think of last Christmas in particular, almost certain it would be Alice’s last with us, hoping against hope that it wouldn’t. We wanted it to be happy, and it was, but in a forced sort of happiness. And of course this year she’s not here, and that’s just not right, and it’s hard to be excited about Christmas the way the childish me used to be. There’s something symbolic, perhaps, about that Charlie Brown Christmas tree. The thing that should be happy just seems kinda sad.
But I’m not alone in my Yuletide struggles. I talked to someone yesterday who is spending Christmas dinner at his Dad’s, another one at his Mom’s, another at his father-in-law’s, and a fourth at his mother-in-laws. That’s not the joy of four Christmases, that’s the ugliness of a family shattered into pieces. Christmastime is family time, and when family gathers and someone is missing, whether due to cancer or divorce or just a good old-fashioned family feud, we’re forced to notice the harsh realities of life in a fallen world, suffering the consequences of stupid decisions, obstinate personalities, obnoxious relatives, or deadly disease. The older I get, the further away those purely magical, innocent Christmases of my childhood appear. Grown-up Christmas kind of stinks, actually. It’s fun to be together; really sad to think about why it is that we’re never quite all together. I get the sense that many grown-ups only bother with Christmas at all for the sake of instilling fond memories in their kids.
While wallowing in my self-pity this year, feeling Scroogey enough to vindicate the Bah! Humbug! coffee cup Shelly got for me a couple years ago, I considered this the worst Christmas of my life. And in some ways it is. Christmas is a time for lots of tears. Not just my tears, which I can freely cry because everybody agrees tears shed over the death of a daughter or a Gramma or someone we loved are good and noble tears, but also the tears of the husband who cries in secret because he faces another Christmas season unloved by his wife and is ashamed that anyone should know it, the Christmas tears of an abandoned wife, somehow still haunted by the fear that he was right when he said he was leaving because she was such a lousy wife, or the confused tears of a son because Mom and Dad aren’t together this year, or the tears of a parent because their children can’t get along, so they’re not all coming home. Maybe it’s even the tears of someone having to gather, yet again, around the family Christmas tree with that brother or uncle who abused them, stealing forever the innocence and joy of Christmas. We pretend it’s all okay, but it’s not; we are grown-ups now, and we know better. We just lie better.
These problems all existed when I was seven, and I heard little snippets of conversation between Mom and Dad about them on the way to Gramma’s, but what did I know, what did I care? But now I see them, I face them, my friends face them. Merry Grown-up Christmas.
So here I sit at my kitchen table, missing Alice, thinking about my friends and their messed up family Christmases which are really worse than mine, thinking about the past, the present, and what the future might hold. If the past is any indication of the future, the future will hold some good things, and some really painful ones. So I’ve been thinking less about Christmases past, even less about Christmas present, and much about Christmas future. But not the immediate future, because that’s not as much fun, but the distant future. The Christmas when Jesus comes again, and the hand of God wipes away every tear. When sorrow, and death will be no more. No more death! No more tears! This is God’s plan. All things, especially the bad ones, are working together for good.
If God working with bad stuff is disconcerting, and it is to some people, then the bad stuff is meaningless and unnecessary, and God is left trying to make the best of a bad situation. It’s actually far more comforting in the end to understand that God is making use of the bad stuff so that it becomes the best.
I’ve often been guilty of trying to find the joy of Christmas in the past; Jesus came, after all! And don’t get me wrong – the only reason I can have any meaningful hope about Christmas future is because of Christmas past; Jesus came, after all! Christmas is a season of anticipation, but who anticipates what has already come? And what clear-eyed grown-up has the audacity to say that Christmas as we know it is Merry? Not that it doesn’t have its holly-jolliness, but it has to be that way – if it wasn’t super holly-jolly it wouldn’t be worth observing the thing at all, because when we observe the joyful and triumphant we’re almost forced at the same time to face the misshapen and grotesque. It’s a conflict of epic proportions. And who likes conflict at Christmas?
So we anticipate the tearless future, crafted out of the tear-filled past. Almost nothing is tearless here, not even (especially?) Christmas, but heaven is the promise of the tearless future: the righting of wrong, the quickening of the dead, the straightening of the crooked, all brought about in and by the unveiled, unrestrained glory of God in that temple-free city.
Christmas in heaven is going to be ridiculously awesome. It’s going to be the happy innocence of a child’s Christmas with a grown-up’s ability to appreciate it. I’ve never experienced totally happy grown-up Christmas. Dickens once looked at Tiny Tim’s chair and saw it was empty; that empty chair is at my table this year. Every grown-up has some kind of empty chair at the Christmas table. And those empty chairs mean there won’t be any totally happy grown-up Christmases for us (how can we fill a chair once it becomes empty?) until our Father decides it’s time to celebrate Jesus’ coming at His House. Christmas the way we all know deep down it was made to be, even if we can’t bring it about. He can. So, we do not lose heart.
As I understand it, and much to my comfort, even Christmas in heaven isn’t quite perfectly happy until everybody gets there. So this year, we join with the saints in heaven and on earth, celebrating a Partly Merry Grown-up Christmas in happy anticipation of the perfectly happy one coming. Jesus came once; he’ll come again. He brought hope; he’ll fulfill it. The former things will pass away; all things, including Christmas, will be made new. And that thought has helped me to let go trying to milk happiness out of this dry cow called Christmas 2018, and given me an excitement, an almost childish anticipation, for a pea-soup and schoolwork free Christmas complete with Alice and Gramma and the One who will pull this story together and dry all the tears. Under the light of that star, the season looks a bit merrier. Even for this grinchy old grown-up.