Fighing For Joy On The Darkest Night of The Year

This Christmas, Adriene and I traveled to Nashville to see a Christmas concert at the Ryman Auditorium by Andrew Peterson. However, this was no ordinary concert, but instead of gathering of the “who’s who” of artists no one has ever heard of. Artists like Phil Keaggy, Pierce Pettis, Julie Miller, Phil Madeira, Derek Webb, Jill Phillips, Sandra McCracken, Garett Buell, Steve Hindalong, and Matt Slocum. During the first half of the concert, each artist did about one or two solo songs. Sandra did “Age after Age”, Derek did a solid version “I Want a Broken Heart”, Andy did a particularly impassioned “High School Band”, Randall Goodgame did an incredible version of “Did Not Catch Her Name”, and Phil Keaggy did “Salvation Army Band” which drew laughs and looks of amazement from everyone else on the stage. Andy Gullahorn was the surprise of the evening for me, I had never heard him before but he did a great little humorous song called “Holy Flakes” After a short intermission they all performed together as one band for an incredible Christmas show. The Christmas portion was incredible. There was so much going on at one time with Garrett on the drum kit and Steve Hindalong playing percussion. Andy O. was on the electric guitar. Phil Madiera was playing accordion and various other instruments. Ben Shive played piano and keyboard. Sandra and Derek guested on a song. Phil Keaggy guested on another. Pierce Pettis guested on yet another. The concert was essentially the “Behold the Lamb of God” album from beginning to end. Incredible. We met up with about thirty people from the message board and hung out with them all weekend. Kinda like Cornerstone, except about 40 degrees colder. Good times. We even have photos.

Andrew Peterson has released a CD (which is available at his site which is essentially the same as the Christmas concert done in the studio. I’m not a huge fan of Andrew Peterson’s voice, but all of the songs on the CD are top notch. All of the songs are original save for a couple instrumental interludes of traditional Christmas carols. So, if you’re looking for Christmas music this year that’s not yet another rehashing of “Jingle Bell Rock” or “Here Comes Santa Claus”, there’s my recommendation.

Christmas, it seems, has been taking a beating lately . Some people complain about the lack of joy, the lack of excitement, unrelenting stress, expectations, office parties, difficult relatives and so on, and so on. Some traditions that have been followed year after year have become empty and routine. Christians have been particularly on the defensive against Christmas, fighting materialism, idolatry, and greed. A church of some friends of mine is even advocating that its members skip Christmas traditions entirely.

Now, I, of all people, can’t stand the commercialization of Christmas. I abhor the insistence of merchants to press Christmas on us as early as October. I have no love for expectations that say if I don’t spend x dollars on my wife for Christmas, then I must be a bad husband. I have no patience for endless lines or overcrowded parking lots at the mall. However, I fear going too far with reactionary behavior. I know Christians are incessant that “Jesus is the reason for the season” (how many mugs, pens, T-shirts, and candy will you see that on?!) but it’s easy to forget that we stole Christmas from the world first. After all Christmas was a Roman pagan holiday before the Catholic Church declared it “Christ’s Mass.” So, we shouldn’t be surprised that now the world wants it back.

Santa Claus especially seems to be persona non grata with Christians. I know the arguments that some people say about why they will not teach their kids about Santa Claus. “I will not lie to my children.” Never mind that parents lie to their children all the time (“Mommy and Daddy will always be here to protect you”, “Mommy and Daddy will never let anyone hurt you”, “Mommy and Daddy were just wrestling”, um anyways.)

I don’t know, but I remember what I think is the first time I realized that Santa wasn’t real. It wasn’t a crisis of faith. I didn’t hate my parents. I didn’t write a terrible poem about my parents and get it played on FM radio. I didn’t despair that Christmas would never be the same again. I was five or six and at a Christmas party of some sort, seems like it was at a VFW or something like that. Aunt Linda and Uncle Ed had brought us to the party and there we got to sit on Santa’s lap and tell him what we wanted for Christmas and we’d receive some various small candies, toys, and trinkets. After only about thirty seconds on Santa’s lap, I had come to the clear conclusion. This wasn’t Santa, this was Uncle Ed. Even at that young age, my tiny little mind “got it” and it’s bounced around in my head for twenty-five years.

* Santa isn’t a real person.
* Uncle Ed was doing this because he loved these children and he loved me.

That thought after twenty five years took shape and hit me between the eyes this week. I don’t know why it surfaced now, but it seems to me so representative of the ways that we try to emulate and show the love of God, despite our imperfections, our hang ups and our underlying selfish motives. In spite of ourselves, the Lord still expresses that same love that sent His son to the earth to be born, live, and die all around us. The traditions we embrace, no matter how lame, are symbols of something greater. There is beauty in a feeble attempts to offer each other trinkets which to me, symbolize the original gift from God to us, Jesus Christ. There is joy in decorating a tree with reminders of our childhood, ornaments from events in our lives, and lights to fight off the night outside. There is beauty in writing out Christmas cards and reminding friends far off that we never see anymore that we still think of them. Even Santa Claus, that “enemy of Christmas”, is a tangible reminder in every single advertisement, billboard, poster, and TV commercial, of God’s love expressed through a man in the 4th Century who loved God and loved children. They are all evidence of the beauty and absurdity of the Gospel The baby boy, helpless to even lift his head would become the man whom the world would be helpless without. Every cheesy Christmas carol, every wrapped present, every candy cane, every twinkling light on a house, every Christmas ornament is a little reminder to me, a subversive wartime clue left by God that He’s still at work in a world that hates him so.

I know people become overwhelmed by expectations and tasks of Christmas. I know people become depressed about friends, family, missed opportunities, loneliness and ones who have gone on before them. For me, Christmas is the time of the year that I open my arms wide and take the traditions head on and by doing so, release all of the year’s hurts and disappointments, and every year there are many. I drop them off at the stable, my wretched gift sitting next to the gold, frankincense, and myrrh. In the words of Rich Mullins, to truly feel the joy of Christmas, we must “…become the children we once were and must become again. Stables will be temples, stars will be guarantees.” For those despairing over family strains and arguments at Christmas, they must lay them down at the feet of the child who came from a family line more checkered than any of us will have. For those despairing over illness or death in friends and family, they must lay them down at the child who would grow to be man that healed the sick and raised the dead. For those despairing over broken friendships, they must lay them down at the child who heals people in more than physical ways. For those despairing over bad choices this Christmas, they must lay them down at the child whose Father said he knew us before we were formed in the womb. For those who are lonely, they must lay the loneliness down to the one who said he would never leave us, nor forsake us. Lay it all down at this altar, this shabby, dirty trough in the stable of an inn.

The Days Only Become Brighter From Here,
Jeff Holland, 12/17/2004

Adriene had some great thoughts about the joy of Christmas, too. I encourage you read them also.