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Christmas Letters

Cribbing from Shakespeare, among the Christmas letters we have received over the years, a few seem to have been born mediocre, some managed to achieve mediocrity, and others simply appeared to have mediocrity thrust upon them. All of us receive such letters, and because a good many of us even write them it is not at present my intention to cast aspersions on this epistolary form. My sense is that these annual holiday letters function as something of a written signal flare, alerting the far-flung members of our tribe to those moments of importance that often only become clear to all of us in retrospect. Like a mysterious holiday fruitcake which began rattling about in a red tin can sliding from side to side in the hindquarters of the postal delivery truck shortly after Halloween, usually we can count on hearing every Christmas season from the shirt-tail relations and those off-the-grid holdouts who are not quite ready to join Facebook. But in our household, we actually enjoy gathering daily at the kitchen countertop over a stack of letters for what amounts to a literary feeding frenzy. Some of these chatty Christmas confessionals do clock in just a bit longer than Tolstoy’s War and Peace, faithfully bringing us up-to-date on Aunt Hilda’s emergency liposuction as well as Freddy Junior’s graduation from the Animal Control Officer academy back in April. But typical to the form is the kind of Christmas letter that Lisa Belkin of the New York Times described as “a laundry list of perfect children being raised by ideal parents.” There is a simple reason for this, writes Belkin:

“Like high-school reunions . . . the ones that are most likely to show up each year are those happy ones. Bad news tends not to find its way into these letters, which is understandable – you don’t want to share sad things with people you weren’t close enough with to tell in real time – but also a shame. That list of friends should not just be for fair weather.”

Now while I tend to think that Belkin is correct in her assumptions regarding the depths and purposes of true friendship, it also seems pretty clear that the market remains steadfastly bullish on good-news-and-nothing-but-good-news-all-the-time. For instance, those geniuses over at Amazon have lately been hawking not just one but two breathlessly clever books by an enterprising author eager to offer us some of her über-helpful suggestions for “writing creative Christmas letters that people are actually eager to read.” Surprisingly, neither of the two volumes were written by Martha Stewart. But the mute fact of this publishing trend apparently signals a nation-wide protest movement now building in response to that perennial problem of “the boring brag letter” which is being produced by so many of the obnoxiously Stepford families living all around us. Who knew? But friends, unto you I bring good news of great joy which shall be available for all people at only $14.95 a pop. Now even you too can “transform the annual family newsletter into one that is so interesting and entertaining that even the busiest holiday reveler can hardly put it down.” Clearly, we are well on our way to Making America Great Again now that we have figured out a way to produce even more effective family propaganda for this, The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.

Were we to continue down this rabbit trail, I suspect we would shortly find ourselves in danger of missing something essential for an authentically Scriptural soulcraft. Part of what I’m reaching for here seems to be visible in the very seams of the Advent stories we find ourselves reading year after year. Watch carefully, for example, as the Virgin Mary scuttles off to a nondescript town out in the hill country of Judea to spend quiet months pondering her inconceivable pregnancy in the company of her likewise impossibly pregnant kinswoman, the aged Elizabeth. What else could the Gospel storyteller have in mind than the insistent suggestion that these two women, one young and the other old, find in each other a necessary grace space in which to contemplate the strange ways in which God’s favor and blessing serve to complicate rather than simplify their journey of obedience? And what more then could we want than the type of faithful community and friendship which allows us to share not so much the airbrushed and carefully composed image of our family propaganda, but instead the gritty details where we usually live out most of every year? Maybe you have heard this in the Arabian proverb that tells how a true friend is someone to whom you can pour out all the contents of your own heart, both the chaff and the grain together. These true friends can always be trusted to use gentle hands to take and sift the contents hidden within us, keeping what is worth keeping while with a breath of kindness pausing to blow all the rest away. If I ever stop to write and send you a Christmas letter, I hope you will read it with that kind of spirit. For I am guessing that most of us benefit from a least a few ellipses along the way, blank spaces that hold a measure of mercy between the Story to which we aspire and the actual facts regarding the persons we have been.

Perhaps I should now be sorry if earlier I left any impression that Christmas letters require the extension of grace by those who read them. This Advent I think the letters themselves are often an expression of grace. At least that is what I have come to believe after reading a few this past week. One letter in particular caught both my eye and my heart, a Christmas message from distant friends whose oldest daughter died in September after living the past twelve years with a traumatic brain injury suffered in a car accident which forever altered this entire family. Now with one beloved daughter gone and another away at the university where she is finding her passion and vocation for service to the world, our friends acknowledged their occasional difficulty in adjusting to the new and much different life than they have known. “We thank God for sending His Son to be our Savior, the One who knows our joys and our sorrows,” they wrote, giving praise for Jesus, “the One who holds us accountable to act like Himself.” And when I read these costly and hard-fought words of testimony, some Advent happened over the countertop in my kitchen. For the old assumption probably worked out something like this: Wherever a Messiah is present, there will be no more sickness, pain, sorrow, or death. But now a new Advent calculus has become evident through the birth of a baby plopped onto the used straw of a manger tucked into a backwater, cow-town feed lot. Do you really want to hear that news this Christmas? Well, here it is, whether or not we actually find it so interesting and entertaining that even the busiest holiday revelers among us can hardly put it down: Wherever you find anything like sickness, sorrow, pain, or even the ordinary suffering of our thoroughly human lives, there you will find the Messiah who is Christ the Lord.

But then we already knew that, given that it was an indispensable part of the Good News first announced by Gabriel, that unexpected archangel who just kept interrupting folks already hard at work trying to manage their quite ordinary lives. Do you remember what he had to say in response to each of those understandable objections offered by the thoroughly reasonable folks who always appear to be just like us? Well, let me simply remind you this Advent of that inexplicable angel talk which amounts to the improbable Creed beneath all of our predictable creeds. In fact, you might even need to hear it once again even before all of us meet one more time to welcome and worship that Holy One who has come to be present among us in such strange and unfamiliar ways: “For nothing will be impossible with God.”

Jeff Crosno