Growing up, I had everything I needed – heck, I even had some of the things I wanted! However, times were not always plentiful. There were Christmas’s that I would have considered extravagant based on what I assumed my family’s net income was; there were also Christmas’s where belts were tightened and pennies were stretched to make ends meet. I serve a multi-generational church, and people from each of these generations knows plenty and want in their family’s history, some much more than others.
There were Christmas’s like the one shown here:
As a child – and as a cradle Methodist with a local pastor as a father – I knew what Christmas was really about. However, to be honest, I found it hard and believe all children find it hard to separate Christmas from the receiving of gifts. After all, we are taught to watch out, not cry, not pout, and be good for goodness’ sake. If we do, a Christmas miracle of gifts is in store. As a parent now, I am realizing that this miracle is not without cost, and I see how much my parents sacrificed to provide for our family, inside and outside of the Christmas season. Again, I knew and know now that the season is not about the consumerist craze, but it is hard for a child to emotionally and mentally make that separation. I would assume the same can be said still for many adults.
I remember distinctly one Christmas where the main gift my brother and I received were these:
The novelty lasted longer for these toys than some other more expensive gifts I had received up to that point. My brother and I had a marvelous time watching them race. I still have mine somewhere in my disaster of a closet. As I looked back on that Christmas, later on in life, I realized that this was a Christmas where things were tight around the house and some sacrifices were made to work within our budget. At that age, though, I never realized it! Why? Because my parents filled our house with Joy, the joy that can be found in the love of God through Jesus Christ.
There were financial issues I never even sensed, because my parents sacrificed for our family and kept our spirits high and our participation in the life of the Church very active. There was joy at Christmas without a lot of “stuff,” and I think bringing that joy in that context takes skill and commitment to trust God’s grace.
Another memory of a stressful financial season in my family’s life has to do with cucumbers – cucumber salad, in fact. I came home and opened the refrigerator to find a single bowl on one of the racks. It was filled with cucumber salad. Next to the refrigerator was a large loaf of sliced bread. That same Christmas season my brother and I each received a sizable check from our grandparents – large enough to buy the shoes and gear we needed for our sporting activities at school and to send us to summer camp and church camp. I hadn’t really pieced it together at my young age, but realize now that this Christmas gift made it possible for us to participate in extracurricular events that next year. I never realized that. Why? Because my family had a network of support in our nuclear family that helped us stay afloat when needed. My grandparents gave sacrificially so that my family could remain in a good place. There was a community surrounding us to catch us.
It can definitely be said of our own local mission fields that there are people who have not experienced joy in quite a long time around the holidays. People who have lost loved ones; jobs; security; hope; housing; assurance; and peace. There are also people who do not have a network of support around them to catch them when they fall. If either of these things had been missing from my life, I would have very different memories of what it was like to grow up.
As the Church prepares to light the Candle of Christ our Joy, we need to consider that we, like the angels to the shepherds, are heralds of Good News and Great Joy – that we are manifestations of God’s joy in our local mission fields. We also need to consider that our churches may be the absolute only communitas (loosely structured community of love and support) that individuals and families have.
What are we willing to do as the Body of Christ, so that those missing joy and community in their lives can feel the peace of Christ this Christmas and the many days beyond? We are to be the smiling face that sacrifices so that others may have what they need, and maybe even something they want. We are to be the network of support that catches falling children of God and lifts them back up. If we do not, then we are the rich people in James’ letter, passing my the poor and wishing them warmth and food and community with our mouths only.
The best part of these Christmas memories is that I had so missed the lack of material things in our household – and didn’t care – because the people around me were committing to experiencing the Joy of Christ and the support of family. May we be this to our local mission fields, as well.
1 John 3:16-18
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother or sister in need but has no pity on him or her, how can the love of God be in them? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.