It’s not that I hate Christmas. I actually love Christmas. But I never love Christmas at first. I have to work my way into it. Even though I hate putting up the tree and getting all the decorations out, I do it because I believe that having the house decorated will help me be in the spirit of the season. It’s not instantaneous, either; I’m always relieved to have the decorating done, but I don’t immediately plop myself down in our new Christmastime fantasyland of shiny lights and stars and think, “Yay, baby Jesus!” It takes days, some years weeks, of the rituals of lighting the tree and opening calendar doors and sitting in the silent expectation before my heart starts to warm to the joyful spiritual moments of Advent. So on the weekend after Thanksgiving, I begrudgingly make myself help put up Christmas decorations in the hope that my actions will change my feelings.
And they usually do.
Except when they don’t.
Some years I never feel it. Some years I just don’t get in the spirit of the season. Some years there have been obvious reasons, other years I never put my finger on it. But when I have that kind of a Christmas, the kind that is simply stressful and sad, that disappointment stays buried all year long until the next weekend after Thanksgiving, when digging out the decorations becomes even harder than usual. Because what’s the point? It didn’t work the last year. What if it never works again? Maybe Christmas is dead to me now. Or, I guess more accurately put, maybe I’m dead to Christmas.
On those years, when I am afraid that what I hope for will not come to pass, you know what I do? The same damn thing I do every year. Because that is what hope is.
Practically speaking, hope is a silly, foolish thing. Every year since the baby Jesus was born, we echo the angels’ song: “Peace on earth, and goodwill to all people!” It’s ridiculous. How many thousands of years have passed since angels supposedly proclaimed that? Has a single year since then actually seen peace on earth or goodwill towards all people? Do any of you reading this actually think that these things will ever come to pass? If you do, you’re a fool. There is not going to be peace on this earth. Americans are not about to start beating their guns into plowshares. Terrorists are not about to stop studying war. Nations are not about to reconsider rising up against other nations. Our incoming president most certainly did not get elected by running on a platform of goodwill towards all people.
There is never, ever going to be peace on earth.
Every year, on the first Sunday of Advent, we light the Hope candle and I know that the things I hope for are probably never going to happen. I consider taking a break from church. I consider not celebrating Christmas. I consider giving up my faith. I consider leaving my worthless career as a stupid chaplain and go make some real money instead. I consider buying a gun. I consider keeping the money I give to charity. I consider willfully turning away from the suffering of others. I consider all the ways I could tell the rest of the world to go screw itself and just worry about me and mine. Because honestly, what’s the point? Jesus isn’t coming. And even if he was, it wouldn’t matter; he came before and nothing changed.
Then I take a deep breath and I pray a little prayer for forgiveness and a bigger prayer for strength. I stand up determined to live as if going to church matters, as if Christmas makes a difference, as if my faith is real, as if my career choices are meaningful, as if peace and non-violence can be achieved, as if my generosity will create change, as if my bearing witness to the pains and ills of the world will bring healing, as if there really is a point to opening my heart to others and loving beyond myself. I will live as if Jesus were coming. As if Jesus were here.
I’m not convinced any of these things is true. But I’m going to live as if they were, because that is what hope is. Practically speaking, hope is silly and foolish. But theologically speaking, hope makes everything matter.
I hate putting up Christmas decorations, but you know who loves it? My daughter. She vibrated with excitement, somehow in two places at once: underfoot and in the way of whatever both her parents were trying to do at any given moment. She wanted to unstring lights, to hang ornaments, to unpack boxes, to read Christmas books, to hear us tell the stories that go with every decoration we’ve collected over the years. We put up a small tree in her bedroom, and when she went to bed that night, she had us hold hands in a circle around it so she could say a blessing for baby Jesus. She believes in Santa, she believes in Jesus, she believes in Christmas. She believes all of it. I want to believe, too. Until I do, I am going to live as if I did