As Christmas draws near, we turn to stories to express the inexpressible. Like the Gospel writers we are at a loss to explain the activity of our God in the world and so we too resort to story telling. Families gather and the reliable old stories are told. Each year new stories are added to our treasure troves as we seek to express the inexpressible and touch the hem of our God who is love. What better way to touch and be touched by God than to tell stories of God’s love in the world? We all have treasure troves of stories of Christ taking on flesh and dwelling among us. My story took place when I was a young woman determined that my first Christmas living out in the world would be the type of Christmas that dreams are made of.
It’s a story about the quest for the perfect Christmas. When I was growing up, I always wanted Christmas to be just so. But the reality of life with all its inherent dysfunctions coupled with financial limitations meant that we just couldn’t pull off the perfect Christmas. I used to comfort myself with the notion that when I grew up things would be different. When I grew up, I’d do things better. I’d save up my money so that no one would be disappointed and there’d be enough to ensure that the house would be filled with Christmas cheer! The decorations would be perfect and no family arguments or disappointments would be allowed to ruin my dream of the perfect Christmas. I knew that just as soon as I had my own place, I’d be able to pull off the kind of Christmas that would be so full of peace and harmony that the angels wouldn’t be able to keep from singing.
But, when I did finally move out, I only sort of got my own place. I couldn’t quite afford the rent by myself, so I put a notice up in the office where I worked and I got myself a roommate to help with the expenses. Helen and I had very little in common. Those first few months were tough. She liked things her way and I liked things my way. We didn’t really like each other much, but we tolerated one another because we loved the house. It was an old barn of a place perched on a hilltop above Vancouver’s Jericho Beach. The location was truly magnificent. So, Helen and I put up with one another’s strange ways. We tried to get along, but in various subtle and not so subtle ways we let each other know that if we had been able to afford the house on our own we certainly wouldn’t put up with a roommate. We were both strong willed and opinionated but we didn’t argue instead we used passive aggression to get our points across.
Looking back on it now, I wonder why we ever thought that having a Christmas party was a good idea! Why we ever thought that we could celebrate together I don’t know, but at the beginning of December we decided to have a tree trimming party and invite our respective friends to gather in our home to usher in the Christmas season. There was trouble right from the very beginning. Helen wanted an artificial tree, I insisted on a real one. Helen thought we should have a potluck meal, I insisted on serving our guests a three-course meal. Helen wanted us to make decorations for our tree, I insisted of purchasing only the finest decorations I could afford. Helen wanted to serve all sorts of alcohol, I insisted on limiting it to beer and wine. Helen wanted to play games; I don’t play games at parties.It went on and on with both of us insisting on something and then the inevitable negotiations in order to arrive at a compromise. But I was convinced that everything would work out fine once our guests arrived, so I plowed ahead with the preparations.
When the day of the party arrived, Helen and I experienced a bit of a break through. We admitted to one another that we were too tired and pre-occupied to actually enjoy the party. Over a cup of coffee we actually considered cancelling the silly party. When our guests arrived, it seemed as though we might have done them a favour if we had cancelled because they too were tired and preoccupied. Apparently we’d all just carried on out a sense of social obligation. Not surprisingly, during the course of the evening the conversations, fuelled by the beer and wine, became a little heated. A bunch of guests were arguing over something so important that I can’t even remember what they were arguing about now. Ronald Regan’s name came up; and somebody tried to get the conversation off politics; which led to some people arguing about sports and other people arguing about religion and whether or not Jesus was actually born in a stable. Comments were made. Helen’s friends thought my friends were outrageous and my friends felt the same about Helen’s friends and so the party limped along to a merciful end.
When the guests finally left, the tree was decorated, with an odd mixture of tacky homemade decorations and cheap store bought items. It was far from perfect, and there was no chance that it would ever end up on the cover of a Christmas card. Helen had won the day, and instead of the beautiful shiny star that I had purchased for to top the tree, some old family air loom, china angel of Helen’s was perched precariously atop if our limp little tree. I was simply trying to straighten it; I swear I never meant for it to come crashing down. It mustn’t have been put in the stand correctly in the first place. Why else would it have fallen over, just as Helen was telling me to be careful? The tree and all its stupid decorations crashed to the floor; including Helen’s precious china angel. The angel’s neck was broken. It was a clean break, the head severed with one crack. I must have known that some glue could have put that angel back together, so I don’t know why I did what I did. But I picked up the headless body and I flung it at the floor.
My perfect Christmas shattered into pieces on the floor along with Helen’s precious angel, given to her by her sainted grandmother when she was just a little girl. It smashed into a thousand pieces, the shards and splinters skittering through the living room, into the kitchen and into two adjoining rooms and out the door and down the steps. The evidence of my rage and the hopelessness of it all spread everywhere. Tears filled Helen’s eyes as she picked up the angel’s head. Its seraphic smile mocked us both. Helen looked at me with the saddest expression I’d ever seen and I expected her to launch forth into a tirade. But all Helen could manage were the words, “It doesn’t matter.”
Without another word, she left the living room. I listened to her climb the stairs and walk slowly to her bedroom. I stood in the aching silence and felt tears trickle down my cheeks and realized that I had ruined Christmas. Not my friends, not my family, not even Helen or her friends, but me; I had ruined Christmas; it was my fault. I had tried so hard to make it right, and then I’d ruined it all. I leaned against the kitchen counter and stared at the pieces of china lying on the floor, casualties of some strange warfare in me. Why couldn’t I be as good as I wanted to be?
I don’t know how long I stood there, but my self-pity was interrupted by the sound of Helen’s footsteps coming back down the stairs. Without a sideward glance, she got out the broom and dustpan, and in silence we began to sweep up the shattered angel. I couldn’t find words for my shame. It seemed so pitiful to say, “I’m sorry,” but I did, and Helen simply said, “I know.” We cleaned up our party in silence.
Regret and remorse kept me awake most of the night. In the morning, Helen told me not to worry, stuff happens, things get broken. She seemed to be trying to make the best of things, but I knew her grandmother’s cherished angel was no more, and worse, something in her granddaughter’s heart had been broken. As for me, all I could feel was a dull lingering ache. For the next few weeks leading up to Christmas, I kept finding fragments and splinters of that shattered angel in strange places. I kept finding them in out-of-the way corners when the light hit them just so—they were everywhere. Each time I found another piece of that angel, I thought about how much it had meant to Helen, how many memories it held in its eyes, and how much love beneath its wings. I wondered about Helen’s grandmother and how she must have treasured such it. I wondered how she got it in the first place and what made her give it to Helen. And then, there was the decapitated head. Helen had carefully put it on the mantle the night I broke it. I didn’t dare move it, so it stared accusingly at me whenever I went into the living room. I wanted to buy Helen a new angel, but she wouldn’t let me. Helen insisted that we put my shiny star on top of our tree. I suggest that we make something. I don’t know what I was thinking, I’m just not a crafty person, but together we made a beautiful angel. Well, not exactly a beautiful angel; more like the body of an angel. Somehow, Helen devised a cloth body, on which we attached the precious china head. So, on top of our tree, sat the most unusual angel; who watched over something quite miraculous.
Somehow, the shattering of the china, released something in Helen and I. The passive aggression left our house and was replaced by the beginnings of a real friendship We talked together about Christmases past; about hopes and disappointments. We learned about one another’s lives and we began to laugh and to cry, and to talk and to shout, and to disagree and to compromise and to care about one another. When each shattered piece of the angel would appear, I would truly apologize and Helen would genuinely forgive me.
I find it ironic, that the very season that offers the message of Peace on Earth, Good Will to All, brings instead Stress on Earth, and Bad temper to Many. The challenge is to balance the traditions that manifest the joy of the season with the gift that embodies the reason for the season; and that gift is love. For God is love.
And as the carol says:
Love came down at Christmas
Love all lovely, love divine
Love was born at Christmas
Stars and angels gave the sign.
Stars and angels gave the sign.
So did wise folks and shepherds then;
so do presents and mistletoe; homecomings and holly; trees, lights, and embraces now.
All the things that make Christmas Christmas point us to that gift of love if we let them. Someone emailed this to me years ago; and I’ve kept it even though I thought when I received it that it was smaltzy: but I think it speaks to some of our desires for the perfect Christmas, so you’ll have to forgive the smaltz:
“If I decorate my house perfectly with plaid bows, strands of twinkling lights and shiny balls, but do not show love, I’m just another decorator.
If I slave away in the kitchen, baking dozens of Christmas cookies, preparing gourmet meals and arranging a beautifully adorned table at mealtime, but do not show love to my neighbour, I’m just another cook.
If I work at the soup kitchen, carol in the nursing home and give all that I have to charity, but do not show love to my family, it profits me nothing.
If I trim the spruce with shimmering angels and crocheted snowflakes, attend a myriad of holiday parties and sing the solo in the Christmas Cantata but lose sight of the Christ in Christmas, I have missed the point.
Love stops cooking to hug the child.
Love sets aside the decorating to kiss the lover.
Love is kind, though harried and tired.
Love doesn’t envy another’s home that has coordinated Christmas china and table linens.
Love doesn’t yell at the kids to “get out of the way; I’m baking Christmas cookies here.
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.
Love never fails.
Video games will break, pearl necklaces will be lost, golf clubs will rust.
But the gift of Love will endure.
Love never fails; well the truth is: our love often fails, it is God’s love that never fails.
For God is love.
We are created in the image of God.
Love is in the very fiber of our DNA, so you see
we were created to be love and
it is in our very nature to love.
The gift of Christ is a gift given to remind us who we are.
Love will endure.
The promise of new life in the birth of the Christ child becomes the hope of life eternal in the resurrection of Christ who lives and breathes in with and through us. It is love that triumphs over death—love that is the Christmas Truth, a truth greater than the traditions it inspires; the mystical longing of the creature for the creator, the finite for the infinite, the human for the divine. It is a longing that transcends culture, religion, language and custom; it is a longing that is represented for us in the baby in the manger—the sudden amazing and incomprehensible gift of grace: a God who loved us enough to be with us.
Yes, we embody the wonder of Christmas in the gifts given, the meals shared, the gathering of family and loved ones; and not so loved ones. But the greater wonder is that the God who is love incarnate comes to us at Christmas and is among us as one of us showing us how to share that love with a world in such desperate need of it. St. Athanasius summarized the message of Christmas by saying that in the birth of Christ: “God became human that we might become God.” Another way of putting that in Christ that we can see, know, and feel God.
In Christ we learn that in those moments when we love are the times when we are most like God. When we use love to overcome injustice, war and anything else that dehumanizes and demonizes anyone, we are most like God. The gift of Christmas is the humanization of God so that human beings can become more like God. The gift of Christmas is that we are loved so that we can become love. Becoming love is a process; a beautiful, wonderful, painful, difficult, glorious process; kind of like picking up those pieces of shattered china. They were everywhere. I found what might have been the last piece of that angel before going to bed early Christmas morning, after coming home from the midnight Christmas Eve Communion. Maybe it had fallen out of the trash bag, but however it got there, the small piece was lying on the driveway just where it intersected with the back alley. I found it because the light of the moon, or the stars, or the neighbours’ window, hit it just so. It occurs to me that maybe Christ is like finding those pieces in curious places after the shattering happens. Finding little pieces and slivers of what Christmas means, of what the gift is, in the corners of our lives, in the cracks of our failures and shattered dreams, in friends’ small expressions of love and forgiveness and trust, in chances to begin again, and again. Alleys and starlight. God then and now, here and there and everywhere. The light penetrating the darkness and hitting just so, unexpectedly, off what is broken and somehow mysteriously reflecting hope.I picked up the broken piece from the driveway and held it as I walked to the back door, somewhere between Christmas Eve and Christmas morning. I remembered the grandmother, and the granddaughter, and then another woman who long ago had been in painful labour on this night and a child born in a not so perfect out of the way place; a gift of love. God then and now, here and there, working in a broken world amidst broken people who break things.
Christmas isn’t about perfection. Christmas is about Love; Love that is determined to dwell with us in the midst of our brokenness; Love that is willing to work with us to heal our brokenness. I took that broken piece of angel wing into the house and I got out the glue gun and I fixed some red string to it and when it was dry I hung it on our pitiful Christmas tree and the next morning when I Helen and I came down to greet the new day, a broken angel smiled down on us. Helen saw the hideous excuse for a decoration that I’d put together and laughed out loud. She warned me that if I wasn’t careful, I’d ruin Christmas with my hopeless sentimentality! But it wasn’t me who insisted on taking that hideous excuse for a decoration when we eventually moved from that old house. But it was me who packed away the love, which that hideous decoration bore witness to, and who treasures the memory of that hopelessly imperfect Christmas in my heart. Strengthened by the love of a friend for the work of love.