I told Brad the other night at dinner that this is the first year in several that I have actual felt even a bit of Christmas joy. Three years ago we mourned the loss of my mother-in-law, Janice, who had died in September. The following year my father-in-law Jon was diagnosed with terminal cancer two weeks before Christmas. Last year was our first Christmas without him. Let me say point-blank: Christmas sucked for three years straight.
It’s so easy to get ensnared in the glittery, caroling, iced cookie expectations of Christmas, isn’t it? Don’t get me wrong — those parts of Christmas are beautiful and holy and joyful. But when they are missing, overshadowed by illness, death, grief, depression, fear, loss, anger, ugliness, fill-in-the-blank-with-your-burden, we feel ripped off. Gypped.
We feel like Christmas with all its magic and miracles and jingling joy has passed us right by like a cherry-red sleigh swishing through freshly fallen snow.
We feel like Christmas has left us standing on the curb, spattered in dirt-blackened slush.
But listen for a second, friends. I know this, because I’ve been there, up to my eyeballs in grief and anger, bitterness and disappointment right in the middle of the Christmas season. And I can say this because I know it’s true: Christmas is the ugly, too.
Dare I even say it? The ugly, the underbelly, the dirt-encrusted slush? That is the real Christmas.
Our God was born human in a barn. And though we like to pretty it all up with our hand-carved, hand-painted nativity scenes arranged just so on our coffee tables and mantels and hearths, that barn our God was born in, the real Bethlehem-barn, was ugly.
There was no Christmas tree strung with tiny white lights in that barn. No “Silver Bells” and “Winter Wonderland” piped in over the sound system. No gifts wrapped in foil, no perfectly iced sugar cookies, no dainty hors d’oeuvres arranged on special holiday serving dishes and no sparkling punch poured into delicate crystal glasses.
No, that barn was dirty, with dung-caked floors and dim, dusty light and the clattering and thumping of hooves. That barn didn’t smell like a French Vanilla Yankee Candle; it stunk like filthy animals and rank, unwashed bodies. There was blood on the floor of that barn, and amniotic fluid and afterbirth. The mother who gave birth in that barn was a young, unwed woman. The father was a humble carpenter. And the visitors were motley crew of shepherds who’d come straight from the pasture.
It was not pretty and perfect in that barn, and you want to know why? Because God didn’t come for the pretty and the perfect, the sparkly, glittery, arranged-just-so. He came to us as a human being so he could be with us, as close to us as humanly possible, which includes, of course, all of our ugly, unseemly, unsavory parts. Our anger. Our bitterness. Our disappointment. Our grief. Our loneliness. Our despair. Our ugly Christmases.
God came to be with us in that.
Truthfully, these last three years I couldn’t really see that God was with me in the ugly Christmas. I was so angry, so sad, so worn out, I could barely leave the house – the mere thought of twinkly lights and glittery decorations and cheerful music filled me with too much despair. But I see it now. I see now that he was there, right there with me in the muck, disappointment and hopelessness. He was there.
And so I need to tell you this today. If you’re in that place, if you’re in the ugly Christmas right now, know this: you might not see him, you might not feel him, you may be downright hating Christmas right now, but God is with you. He was born in a barn, amid filth and stink, especially for you, especially for this exact moment, especially for the ugly Christmas.