There are certain things I can count on for Christmas. Despite my best efforts to stay healthy, I always end up with a nasty cold and a scratchy throat. After devoting the month of December to pumping myself with Zicam and large doses of vitamin C, avoiding crowds and washing my hands after touching anything in a public place, I thought I could escape the inevitable. But this morning, December 23, when I woke up, I discovered that the unwelcome guest I’ve spent so many Christmases with is back. Oh, goody.
I can count on not sleeping well the night of December 23. Not even the cold meds will help. I’m just too hyped about Christmas Eve, and not in a good way. The weight of Christmas expectations bear down on me. I don’t want to be the one who ruins Christmas for the people who come to worship with us at Holy Trinity. I don’t want to leave anything to chance. I pick at my sermon until it bears only a slight resemblance to my original draft. I wonder what hidden mistake that I didn’t catch in the bulletin will jump up and smack me in the face during the service. I highlight every word I’m going to say. I make lists of details I will need to tend to as soon as I arrive at the church, last minute instructions I need to give to the assisting minister, and the organist, and the lector, and the ushers (all people who know perfectly well what to do without the last minute meddling of their pastor). I can’t remember how it works when we light the candles at the end. Do I go to the ushers to light their candles? Do they come to me? Does it matter? More than anything, I need a good night’s sleep, and that’s exactly what I won’t get. Yep, I can count on it.I also can count on having an episode of feeling sorry for my poor, pitiful self because I live so far away from my family. I’ll remember how it felt to be with my brother and sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins on Christmas when I was a kid, and how it felt to spend Christmas with my own kids back when my whole world revolved around them, and I’ll wonder what happened. It’s just wrong. How did I come to this? And I’ll wallow in my sorrow as if it just occurred to me that I’m all alone. It often sneaks up on me when I’m watching some sentimental, sappy holiday movie on T.V. (or a greeting card commercial) and all of a sudden I start sobbing uncontrollably. It happened just last night, in fact. I tried really hard to get a grip, but I lost it.
Are you depressed yet? Well, all of this is just leading up to the one thing I can count on at Christmastime that fills me enough to keep me going for the next year. It happens without fail on Christmas Eve when I’m standing behind the altar holding a lit candle in my hand and I look out over a sea of candles that illuminate the faces of God’s saints as we sing “Silent Night” together. This is the family I am spending my Christmases with these days. I’m far from alone. And they don’t care if there is a mistake in the bulletin. They don’t care if my sermon is a dud. They don’t care if I forget how to light the ushers’ candles. It doesn’t even matter if I can’t sing because I’ve lost my voice. Because, in that moment, it always becomes quite clear to me that Christmas was Christmas long before I came along, and Christmas will still be Christmas long after I’m gone. I’ve been blessed to experience it through the years in 62 different ways and counting. Every one of those Christmases and the people I’ve shared them with comes crashing together in that moment when “all is calm, all is bright.”Yes, lately there are some things about Christmas that I’ve come to count on. Many of them involve struggle for me. But the one I treasure the most is that transcendent moment with the people of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church on The Plaza. The song is there, the love is there, God is there. Just as surely as Christ was born on this earth, in that moment, he is born in us, in our community. It’s something I can count on.