Christmas–Oh, the Humanity!

Christmas is a time that truly reveals our humanity.  It is a celebration of Christ entering our human experience, which does not simply refer to God becoming man; rather He really enters into our humanity—with all its beauty, ordinariness, occasional chaos, and stress.

We often gaze upon picturesque nativity scenes with Mary and Joseph perfectly placed around the peaceful baby Jesus.  A soft light illuminates the resting animals and adoring shepherds.  Indeed this is a moment to worship and rest with God.  But was Christmas really a restful moment?  We sing songs like “Silent Night” but any mother or father could tell you that the first nights and even weeks with a newborn are anything but silent and restful.  They are exhausting!  Parenting is incredibly rewarding, yes, but family life is also tiresome and stressful.  There is no reason to believe the same was not true for the Holy Family, especially during the days of the nativity.

Some scholars say Mary was only a fourteen year-old girl and Joseph may have been as young as nineteen.  When it was time for Mary to have her child, they were far away from home and family, with no place to rest for the night, except a stable full of smelly, noisy animals.  The newborn Jesus was wrapped in regular clothes and laid in a manger—a feeding trough—to sleep.  This first Christmas was surely stressful and exhausting, yet there is no doubt that they were filled with peace rather than with overwhelming anxiety. Recognizing the challenges that they faced, I definitely prefer our own experience of having a doctor, medical staff, and hospital prepared to care for my wife when she is in labor, and being spared of many possible stressors.

It is almost appropriate then that when we celebrate Christmas each year it seems to be a more difficult time of year. We partially cause this stress ourselves.  We always want Christmas to be so picture perfect—like that beautiful nativity scene we display—and we put great effort into making plans with our families, cooking the tastiest meals, purchasing the perfect gifts, hanging decorations, and keeping a smile, while still handling all of the other responsibilities that come with family life.  And let’s be honest, getting all of your family members together carries a certain level of stress even when you love each other and truly enjoy each other’s company. At times, these stressors and tensions can even bring about some unfortunate conflict between loved ones, family conflicts that can be difficult to overcome.  In fact, at due to our family counseling services, we always have an influx of calls right after the holidays, when the aftermath of family conflicts leads people to seek healing and guidance for themselves and their families.

But aside from the serious conflicts that lead people to seek counseling, too often people get down on themselves because not everything went as planned during Christmas. They can be filled with self-guilt or self-condemnation, sometimes becoming quite depressed. Maybe they burnt the turkey, forgot to buy someone a gift, or were embarrassed by an alcoholic family member.  They feel Christmas was a disaster because it did not meet their idealistic, ‘snowy white’ Christmas expectations.  They believe they missed the Christmas spirit…again.  The good news is that Christmas is not about having the perfect holiday experience.

The Gospel of Matthew tells us:
“All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God is with us’” (Mt 2:22-23).

The great significance of Christmas is that God wants to be with us, even when that means being with us in our weaknesses, limitations, and family stress. Despite all the difficulties, if our families can still come together in love to celebrate the birth of Christ, then we are living the real Christmas.

Some years ago I spent Christmas in a hospital at the side of my grandfather while he was dying, an experience of grief that every family knows well. The following year I was in the hospital again on Christmas waiting and hoping for a loved one to come out of a coma after she attempted suicide. The next year after that my wife’s family had all kinds of suffering throughout the Christmas season, challenges that overwhelmed many with anxiety and deep sorrow.  These are my Christmas stories, and, in some sense, they are similar to Mary and Joseph’s first Christmas because they involved a great deal of stress, restless nights, and uncertainty about the future.

But most importantly, in each of these Christmas stories our families still came together with all of our suffering and imperfections. We still came together to pray and celebrate the birth of Christ just like Mary and Joseph. We came together in a spirit of peace.

Every Christmas we are all invited to remember that Christ comes to each of us again, desiring to be present in the midst of our humanity.  We can live the Christmas season well when we keep our eyes gazing on the infant Jesus, inviting God into our humanity, and into our family life.  Will Christmas be a silent night?  Probably not.  A holy night?  Absolutely.

This year let us bring our families together—just as they are—and gather around the Christ child. Then offer a prayer of thanks, for truly “God is with us.”

By Christopher J. Stravitsch, D.Min.Candidate, LPC, LMFT