Tonight, after all the gift-opening and several wonderful meals and after the sledding on Mt. Hood and the great time with family and the hot chocolate on the way home, I embarked on the elusive holiday ritual, "See if there's a grocery store open before dinner."
Checking out of the one open grocery store, I had a brief conversation with Phil, my checker. Working on Christmas didn't bother him. In fact, he had special plans tonight involving a party with an open bar and a designated driver taking him to and from the party. Which, Phil explained, meant he could get as drunk as he wanted. I realize that you may be picturing a college-aged guy getting ready for a big bash with his buddies, but Phil is a man in his mid-forties, bald, thin and with a voice full of false bravado and eyes bulging with pain. He was tired, and his fatigue didn't come from being a checker at Safeway, or from another lousy Christmas, but from the fact that he remains in this world, the burden that is breathing.
For Phil, Christmas means a night with a momentary respite from pain, a night when he can get hammered and feel nothing, or maybe even feel good for a few hours.
I think there are moments where I, too, see Christmas as one more day where I am free to pursue that elusive personal happiness. Free to pursue it, but no guarantee of catching it. It's like chasing after the wind.
But in the end what I really want is not more toys and gifts and not even, really, a break in work, or a birthday celebration for God.
I want the pain to go away.
Not that I have a pained life. I suppose in all of history it would be difficult to find a life as priveleged as mine. I have a great family, all our physical needs are met, I have enormous freedoms that people in previous centuries (or even in this century) would find inconceivable. And yet, the world is breaking all to pieces. I have peace. But the world does not.
And in that sense, I think I want the same thing from Christmas that Phil does. Phil, of course, does not understand the significance of his longings, or so it seems to me. He certainly doesn't have a solution with any long term chance of actually solving anything.
But the wonderful thing about Christmas is that we celebrate together this clear, dramatic motion from God to say, "I am putting everything right." The curse which we earned in the Garden--death, painful toil, complications in the relationship between men and women, terrifying pain in childbirth--He is taking that away, just as He promised. He would send Eve's offspring, he said, to bring us back home, to take us past the flaming sword and into his presence to eat from the tree of life again.
Throughout human history there had been shining moments to remind us of his promise, to assure us that he hadn't forgotten his word, that his nature had not changed, that he was working. But at Christmas he changed everything. Prophecies started making sense... and coming true. Angels appeared to commoners. A virgin conceived, carried the child and gave birth to God himself, come to show us that he cared, come to usher in his own kingdom.
Instead of a shining glimpse he gave us a burning star, and a story with such power and omens so amazing that people still discuss them thousands of years later. More was to come, miracles and teachings of clearly divine origin and, of course, the first fruit of the broken curse... a man who returned to life, never to die again.
Still, the promise is not fulfilled yet, not from our point of view. Christ must return as king on a great white horse and turn all the wrongs of this world right, he must bring justice and eliminate poverty, bring life to the dying and health to the sick.
Now those of us who follow him are spokespeople of the promise. We not only speak but live out his promises, or should. We feed the orphans, care for the widows, speak the words of life to the dying. Or at least that's what we should be doing.
Christmas is a celebration. It is the turning point of humanity, when God revealed himself in an unprecedented way, and walked among us for the first time since the Garden of Eden. This is what Christmas means to me: that for people like me and Phil, people like you, people like my family, my pastor, the homeless guy on the street, for war refugees and soldiers, for despots and kings and benevolent dictators, for shepherds and farmers and postal workers and machinists and grocery clerks, that for all of us, each and every one, there is a reason to hope and a promise of impending peace.