“We should play Christmas music – put on something cheerful,” Aubrey joked. It was the kind of joke that means to be sincere but comes out sounding sad despite itself.
“I have a Christmas station on my Pandora,” I offered up, putting the kettle on as Aubrey started dropping dumplings into a sizzling pan.
“Put it on,” she said.
“Really?” I asked, surprised that she jumped on my offer. “You know it’s August, right?”
I said it as a formality. I have literally zero problems playing Christmas music during the year – a conviction by which the Mary of three years ago would have been scandalized.
“Yes, really,” said Aubrey.
The kettle grumbled in its corner and I fetched my laptop. That’s right – not only do I still use Pandora, I only use it on my computer.
Aubrey put a lid on the dumplings and I started lining up our bowls of instant ramen noodles as sweet tendrils of holiday music filled the air.
Our ramen collection was quite a haul. Aubrey had never been in a 99 Ranch, which was a serious failing on my part as her older sister and guide to the real world.
Nathan had just left that morning for a college located on the opposite side of the country, and so the two youngest siblings in our family’s tree, who have been attached at the hip these last seventeen years, were parted indefinitely (or until the holidays, at least). I was doing my best to help Aubrey emotionally through this transition.
(If you’re laughing at the picture of me being anyone’s emotional guide, I’m going to need you to understand that she had no one else at this point.)
Winter Wonderland trickled into our steamy kitchen and Aubrey and I distracted ourselves with whether or not to add the seasoning packets before or after the water and why something smelled like fish food (that turned out to be the flakes for the Udon).
It’s true that I get a lot of flack (in good humor, I’m sure) from friends who hear that I’ve been blasting Dean Martin’s “Marshmallow World” or singing Presley’s “Blue Christmas” at the top of my lungs in July because I will have a blue Christmas without you, thanks very much. And it’s also true that a few years ago, I would have hung a weighted nutcracker around the neck of anyone decking the halls before Thanksgiving and thrown them into a bottomless vat of eggnog. Like, let Turkey Day have it’s moment, please.
Sorry… Give me a second… I distracted myself with the thought of bottomless eggnog…
I think we can also agree that 2020 has made most of us a little more lenient on the Christmas music front right now because we’re all just trying to survive this year. Let the people find joy. Is it a pumpkin spice latte? Drink it up! Is it new pajamas for the home office? Rock it! Is it the complete Mannheim Steamroller collection? Just let me enjoy this, okay?
The kettle began to boil and we began the arduous process of not making a mess. Success was elusive.
Eventually, we both had bowls of spicy ramen and crispy pork and leek dumplings. Aubrey slid to the kitchen floor with a sigh, her bowl nestled between her knees. Her bright eyes grew soft and her bubbly spirit stilled. For a moment, absorbed in noodles, we were both quiet. “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” lilted over the countertop from my computer.
I remember the first time I heard “Hark the Herald” – I mean the first time I really heard it. A Christmas classic both in Christian circles and in the secular world, it’s a hymn that’s hard not to hear growing up in the United States of America.
To be honest, I never really liked it.
But one year, having drifted through months of religious apathy and a slew of personal heartbreaks and disappointments, I found myself on the verge of dropping out of school, with nothing but pennies in the bank, and wrestling with overwhelming depression. And I walked away from my faith.
More appropriately, I lost it. I woke up one day and found it was not there. But I think it hadn’t really been there for a while. I think I walked away for a long time in small steps, not realizing that one day it would be out of view completely.
I don’t think that’s the saddest I’ve ever been, or the most desperate I’ve ever been, but it was certainly the most hopeless.
It’s a long story, most of which I have already written about, but God eventually brought me back. He opened my eyes. He softened my heart. He returned to me my faith. He restored my soul.
And the Christmas that followed, I heard “Hark! The Herald” with new ears.
/Light and life to all he brings,
Risen with healing in his wings/
Healing. How I needed it. How I still do. It’s hard to live in this fallen world without being pierced and broken by its fragmented pieces.
I had spent most of that year rediscovering what it meant to be a Child of God. Things I had known in my head since childhood, I was beginning to understand in the deepest crevices of my heart. Scripture I memorized as a kid suddenly took on a whole new life. Truths I had believed about God’s grace and peace and mercy were made new and I could feel them – for the first time – in the very marrow of my soul.
Forgiven? Redeemed? Restored? It is one thing to know these academically, but to feel them, to be the recipient of such incalculable grace is enough to make one want to sing joy to the world at any time of year.
And I have found that returning again and again to the Christmas season with this new experiential understanding of the grace of an Almighty God has been like arriving at fresh water after wandering in a dry place. When the disappointments of the year begin to mount, I find myself longing for the Christmas season – not for the trimmings and lights and holiday festivities, but for the focused reminder that the Son of God was born a human into this broken world to save us – to save me, to save you.
/No more let sins and sorrows grow
Nor thorns infest the ground
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found/
(“Joy to the World”)
The idea that the world is cursed is a strange one. We don’t often speak about curses. Perhaps it feels too quaint and medieval, too detached from this modern scientific world. Not even Christians who believe in the fall of man and the shackles of sin talk about the curse.
Maybe 2020 was meant to remind us that this world we live in is indeed accursed. Our world is plagued with illness and death, catastrophe both churned up from the depths of an aching earth and boiling over in the hearts of sinful men.
And looking at my sister, slurping up our conquest from her place on the kitchen floor, I remembered that while this year has been generally hard on everyone, it has been personally hard on many of us too. We have been separated from friends and loved ones, cut off from family by distances necessarily great and small. Some have been unable to say last goodbyes. Others have experienced their first goodbyes. All reminders of how much we need Emmanuel – God with us – the God who is with us always, to the very end of the age, with whom goodbyes are not needed.
This year has been wearying. Friends, I am weary. And I know I am not alone. How I long to sing the words of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.”
/O ye, beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low
Who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow
Look now for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing
O rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing./
“I forget sometimes what this promise is about,” Aubrey said as “Hark! The Herald” wrapped up. She looked at me, which we had been trying not to do because something in the noodles or maybe the music – but definitely not how much we were missing Nathan – was making us cry. “I forget what a big deal it is that the Son of God was born like us, to die for us. We should play Christmas music all year long.”
Finally, someone other than me has said it (does it still count if we’re related?).
The ache in my heart – over Nathan, the pandemic, the civil unrest and injustice, and the secret pangs of loss that have speckled my own life this year, still unhealed – nearly exploded into my ramen. Grief and sorrow are not to be ignored, my friends. And they do not pair well with dumplings.
The world is telling me to wait for Christmas and I am saying no.
I watch people struggle in isolation, grappling with the fear of contagion and facing the reality of death that has previously been so easy to ignore. I see my nation writhe beneath the pain of injustice and unhealed wounds. I listen to my brothers and sisters in the Church as they bear the heavy weight of disrupted fellowship, an unknown future and the friction of living out this high calling to be ambassadors of the Lord to a dark world.
And what a Lord he is. I want to sing of this Lord. I want the world to know him. I want his hope to be shed like light in dark streets, like we sing in “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem.”
/Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight/
Keep the holly and the snowflakes. Save your inflatable snowmen and the Christmas lights you have to untangle for an hour before pinning them over your garage door. I don’t need the Christmas season. I need Christ.
It is a blessing to be able to sing his promises put to beautiful music. Music! – a common grace we do not deserve. Christmas hymns feel like a manifestation of Psalm 84:
“Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.
As they pass through the Valley of Baka,
they make it a place of springs;
the autumn rains also cover it with pools.
They go from strength to strength,
till each appears before God in Zion.”
Christmas is a place of springs, the hymns are autumn rains that cool, they point to the promises that bring us from strength to strength: God and sinners reconciled.
/Hail! the heaven-born
Prince of peace!
Hail! the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
Risen with healing in his wings
Mild he lays his glory by,
Born that man no more may die:
Born to raise the son of earth,
Born to give them second birth./
I know it’s barely September, but my weary, sinful heart needs Christmas right now. The angels are probably still singing glory to the newborn King, and so shall I.
Aubrey and I finished the ramen and turned on a movie, not sure what to do with all the space in the living room without Nathan in it. We ate some mochi. We snuggled some pillows. We tried to pretend like losing people, even for a short time, isn’t hard. But we both know that one day our true brother and king, our friend and Savior, Jesus Christ, will return and wipe away every tear. Change and decay will be no more, and our burdened hearts will find rest.
That’s the kind of jolly I need stored up in my heart.
It’s trite, but it’s true. ‘Tis the season all year long.