Several years ago, I heard part of a conversation that has haunted me ever since.
I was working at a homeless center and, a few days after Thanksgiving, overheard two of our residents talking. One was talking about how he was going to surprise his little girls, whom he hadn’t seen in months, with some gifts he had bought by saving some of his very limited income.
When he finished, he asked the other man what he was planning to do. He matter-of-factly replied, “Oh, I don’t celebrate Christmas.” I was waiting for the explanation I thought was coming: that he wasn’t a Christian. Instead, his words cut my heart: “Christmas is for rich people.”
In that instant, I understood exactly what he meant and exactly how far the Christmas he didn’t celebrate was from the Christmas I do. I was heartbroken that we, as a society, had given him the impression that Christmas is only for the rich. But so we had — boxes, shiny ornaments, beautiful decorations, vast quantities of highly priced toys and gifts, delicious-looking feasts, lots of sweets, desserts, and everything in between.
How could he hope to provide that or even participate in it when he had been beaten down by the world and deprived of basic human necessities for most of his adult life? What did this holiday have to do with him? What did that version of Christmas even have to do with me? Sometimes I wish I had been able to talk with him about it.
If I had been able to talk with him, I would have shared that my appreciation for Christmas comes from developing a deep understanding of one of the names given to the Son of God: Emmanuel, which translates to “God with us.”
When I was going through a very hard and dark time, I imagined myself sitting on a pile of all the crap in my life, both past and present. I slowly examined a lot of it, or at least the biggest pieces, over a couple of months. I tried to ask God about each thing and to listen. I still don’t know how well I did with that. But I do know that God was there, sitting with me and, at times, saying, “I am with you, even here.”
I can never get over the fact that God did not choose to be with us as someone rich or powerful, safe or protected. Instead, He was vulnerable: born in a stable to a family of limited means who were part of a conquered people and needing to be carried to safety because the king wanted Him dead. In Jesus, I see God walking the talk — He is with us in our worst moments and situations. I can invite Him into any aspect of my life and find that He is already there.
That is why my heart was cut when the homeless man said, “Christmas is for rich people.”
As I have grown, I have found that the more I am in touch with my own brokenness and poverty, the more I can really appreciate Christmas. I find that I can’t “get into the Christmas spirit” by focusing on feel-good holiday movies, traditional decorations and culinary trappings, giving (or receiving) the perfect gift, or montages about “the most wonderful time of the year.”
Rather, I have my most joyful Christmases when I take time every day to invite God to be with me in my inadequacy, failures, busyness, tiredness, loneliness, pain, anxiety, and unwantedness; when I pray for the needs of people I know and everyone else who is suffering around the world; and when I focus some of my efforts and resources on helping people in need.
Our world is broken, and I am a mess — aren’t we all, in some ways? But Christmas gives me hope and fills me with joy, because God joins us in our mess and invites us to follow Him into something more — His life — so that our mess might be transformed.