One of the reasons I’ve heard for not saying “Merry Christmas” – at Christmas Masses of all places – is because, for many people, the events of the last year may make it so that this Christmas really isn’t all that merry. There is, of course, a lot of truth here. Some are spending this Christmas for the first time without their spouse or children; some are in the midst of financial distress, others are dealing with troubled marriages. Many feel alienated from their families, sometimes for decades, because of unresolved differences in lifestyle or political opinion. For some, the issues are quieter but no less painful: lack of self-acceptance, low self-esteem, depression, feeling like they’ll never be good enough or have no hope of being noticed, no hope of finding someone to love them for who they are; those who question their ability to be good parents; people everywhere feel alone and abandoned.
I am reminded of the classic quote from St. Philo of Alexandria: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”
Unfortunately, the great battle doesn’t go away just because it’s Christmas. Every one of us is fighting these great battles, and whether we want them to or not, the battles come right along with us to Christmas.
The reason I don’t like the argument for not saying “Merry Christmas” is because it totally misses the point about why Christmas is merry. On Christmas, I’m not merry because my life warrants or encourages merriment; life is like the human heart: fickle, often tumultuous and unreliable. I’m not merry because my life is merry. I’m merry because even in the midst of my trouble and pain, of my great battle, something merry has happened, something totally unprecedented – a total anomaly – has come upon us; a great mystery has unfolded before us and, if we let it, takes up into itself every aspect of our lives.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them a light has shined.” “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
What is the light? Who is the light?
“Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall name him ‘Emmanuel.'”
“Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him ‘Jesus’ for he will save his people from their sins.”
For many of us the great battles we face this year are the same or are some variation of the great battles we faced last year and the year before that. For many, Christ has been kicked out of Christmas for one reason or another. Yeah, “keep Christ in Christmas,” but not because it’s what a bumper sticker told you to do but because maybe – just maybe – the One we’ve run away from is the one who can really help us. Maybe the one who promises mercy will actually show it to me. Maybe the one who promises to make all things truly new actually can. Maybe the one who comes to us first, who loves us first, who calls us first really does desire from me – me: sinful, silly, wayward me – union and love forever.
My life is not the thing by which I measure whether or not I can or should be merry. The fact that in the midst of the darkness caused by all the nonsense I face, a light that I didn’t ask for and don’t deserve continues to shine is the reason and source of my merriment. The ‘period’ at the end of the sentence of my woes is precisely this: a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel. God is with us. God is for us. God is in us. Emmanuel. Jesus. The savior, the king, the lover, the friend. Jesus.
This is not pious, Hallmark Card, religious jargon. This is real. But it requires that in the stillness of the night, in the quiet of our pain, we take an honest look and admit to ourselves what it is we need to surrender to him. He’ll help you with the whole process. “Jesus, I invite you in. Jesus, by the light of the Holy Spirit, show me where I need healing. Jesus, by the light of the Holy Spirit, navigate my heart and begin to uproot the things that keep me from you; I am too weak to uproot them myself.”
This Christmas, leave what’s heavy behind. For good.
The people that hurt us, the people who’ve left us, the dumb stuff we’ve said or done, the damage we’ve caused, the broken hearts, the missed opportunities, the forgotten relationships, the regrets, the bad first dates, the people who bully us, the dumb college mistakes: leave them behind. The virgin shall conceive and bear a son.
The anxiety, the hardship, the worry, the rejection, the low self-esteem, the vanity, the loneliness: leave them behind. The virgin shall conceive and bear a son.
The virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.
The son has a name: Jesus. He is real, he is with you, he is on your side.
The virgin shall conceive and bear a son.
May this year be, finally, a very merry Christmas.