In this year of COVID-19, the governor of my state has asked everyone to stay home for Christmas. To be honest, it feels strange. For many, Christmas is a time for traveling. The same was true of the first Christmas. The Gospel narratives of Christ’s birth are crowded with travelers. Zechariah, the priest, travels to Jerusalem to burn incense before the Lord and is struck with dumb surprise when the angel announces that he and his wife Elizabeth would have a son in their old age. Mary travels too, heading for the hills to visit her relative, Elizabeth. Then to Bethlehem with Joseph to give birth to the miracle child conceived by the Holy Spirit. Shepherds hurry into the night, leaving their flock behind to find the babe wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. Magi travel from the east by caravan to lay their gifts before the newborn king of the Jews, while Joseph and Mary flee to Egypt to escape King Herod’s wrath. Everybody in the Christmas story, it seems, is on the road.
A few months ago, my next-door neighbor told me that the house down the street is haunted. She used to own the place and claims she saw the spirit who inhabits it more than once. She says that it is the ghost of a little boy from the early 1900s, with bobbed hair and knickers, who occasionally appears in the kitchen. I’m not sure what to make of her claim, but I do believe that many of us are haunted. Especially at this time of year. Not by literal ghosts but by memories. Like Ebenezer Scrooge, who was visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past, we are visited by the flickering memories of Christmases that are now gone.
Scrooge’s visit was a kind of reality check, but ours is something else. Ours is a reconstruction. We sort through the fragments of past experience scene by scene, the way an archaeologist sifts through the debris of an ancient civilization. Instead of bits of pottery, we handle shards of memory. Some are broken and fragmentary. These recollections are tinted by the soft glow of nostalgia, a spice that is sweet as powdered sugar but can leave a bitter aftertaste. The recollection of others is more spectral in form. They are haunted in the classic sense, as they contemplate the remains of things that have gone to ruin. The memory of someone whose space is empty casts a shadow on the table. The memory of a past offense or some horror puts a nightmare cast on their recollection.
When Scrooge asked the Ghost of Christmas Past what business brought him to his bedside, the Spirit’s answer was: “Your welfare!” But our ghosts seem to have a more malevolent intent. They aim to disturb. Those memories that trade in nostalgia want to make us jealous. They show us shadows of things that never were and leave us longing for a world we never knew. Those whose trade is fear want to bring us to despair. They show us a world of sin but one without a savior. The pain they bring to mind is real, but it is not the whole story. Hidden from those haunted memories is the hand of God moving in the shadows.
We prefer our holiday season to be serene and magical. We are hoping for a moment of transcendence. We deck the halls and trim the tree. We bake and buy and then settle back to wait. But all too often, our experience is the opposite. Instead of Christmas magic, we get the critical mother-in-law who thinks their child could have done better. The kids like their toys but only for a day or two. The dysfunction that has stalked the family for the previous eleven months refuses to take a vacation. Somebody we love gets sick. Another dies. Or we discover that the real spoiler is our own heart, which leads us on as the day approaches, and then suddenly turns a cold shoulder after it finally arrives.
Before you dismiss me as a curmudgeon (perhaps it is already too late), let me say that I have been a devotee of Christmas for as long as I can remember. Christmas has captivated me since childhood. I can feel its approach as soon as the winds turn to chill in the fall. I start listening to Christmas carols on November 1 and it is only with effort that I manage to restrain myself from starting earlier. I smile every time I watch Scrooge’s gleeful repentance on Christmas morning and weep when George Bailey learns that no man is a failure who has friends. But I must tell you that Christmas has let me down every time. By the time the 26th arrives, I am done. The tree and all its decorations can go back to their place. They seem awkward and out of place to me, as wizened and worn out as Miss Havisham’s wedding dress.
I won’t deny that there are moments of transcendence during the holiday season: The peal of the trumpet during the resurrection sequence in Handel’s Messiah. The sight of wind driven clouds flying across the moon at night. The constellation glitter of the snow as it falls. But these are only momentary stabs of joy. These sensations, as C. S. Lewis has pointed out, disappear as soon as we become aware of them and cannot be manufactured. Play the same song. Visit the same spot. Try to reproduce the circumstances exactly, and you will only be disappointed. But this is, I think, what we are often trying to do during the Christmas season. We are attempting to manufacture joy and hold on to it, at least for a few days.
Unfortunately, the fallen world conspires against us. If it is not the harsh croak of misfortune that bursts in and interrupts our revels, it is misfortune’s plainer sister boredom. We go looking for the sublime only to find the usual. The enchanted world we hoped to create for ourselves proves to be a tangle of colored lights and a pasteboard tableau of the three kings with a camel. The choir is singing off-key, but it really wouldn’t matter if they weren’t, because we hate the song anyway.
Yet we may have more in common with the true Christmas experience than we realize. After all, Jesus didn’t descend from heaven in a cloud of glory. He came into the world by water and blood, as all infants do. There were signs and wonders that marked His birth. But there was also misunderstanding, jealousy, and terror. Joseph considered divorcing Mary. Herod slew all the children of Bethlehem that were two years old or younger. The Holy Family fled for their lives and relocated to Egypt for a time. The version of these events that we see on our Christmas cards or in our imagination is a sanitized one. There is no hard traveling, no fear, and no violence. Our version is a kind of fairy tale, the sort we might read to our children at night to lull them to sleep.
What I am trying to say is that the world Jesus entered was far more like the world we know than the one we fantasize about, whether those fantasies are good or bad. When the Apostle John describes Christ’s entrance into the drama of redemption in Revelation 12, we see a very different portrait. Admittedly, John’s narrative is oblique and far-reaching. He speaks in visions and goes beyond the nativity stories of the Gospels. Yet John’s wild images make clear what the Gospels’ more narrow and literal depictions confirm. The world that the Son of God entered, when He took human form and was born in Bethlehem, was not a tranquil one. Jesus did not come into the soft bed of a manger lit by twinkling starlight and serenaded by the lullaby of angels. He entered a world of blood and tears. Jesus came to a habitation of dragons (Revelation 12:4). The angels who announced His arrival were not plump cheeked cherubs or fragile seraphs with gossamer wings. They were an armed troop who announced the arrival of the Lord of Heaven with a shout of victory.
Don’t misunderstand me. There is nothing wrong with remembering the past. Remembrance is a sacred discipline in the Christian faith. When Jesus handed the disciples the bread and the cup, He told them to eat and drink in remembrance of Him. But I think we should approach our memories, especially at this time of year, with a degree of skepticism. Enjoy the vision, but don’t try to recreate it. Appreciate the memory the way you would a passing fragrance and then let it dissolve into mist the way that all dreams do.
The same is true of those memories that terrify us. They appear suddenly, like Lazarus from the tomb, still wrapped in their grave-clothes. But unlike Lazarus, they carry the smell of the grave and the clench of fear. They rear up like a shadow cast upon the wall by a guttering candle and want us to believe that they still have the power to threaten us. But they are only ghosts and echoes.
Despite our expectations, Jesus did not come into this world to create a magical Christmas season. His sights were set on the cross. The ghosts in Dickens’ tale came to help Scrooge understand his past, but Jesus came to purchase our redemption. To do this, He not only entered into our suffering; Jesus took our sin upon Himself. “When the set time had fully come, God sent his Son,” Galatians 4:4–5, says, “born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.”
“Who is He in yonder stall, at whose feet the shepherds fall?” the old carol asks. He is the Ancient of Days, the God of the Past. He is the God of your past. This is the God who made the light and who seeks you out in dark places. He is the God who knows your dreams and meets you in your disappointments. But more than this, He is the God who saves. “’Tis the Lord, O wondrous story! ’Tis the Lord, the King of glory!’ At His feet we humbly fall, Crown Him, crown Him Lord of all!”