Get ready. Here it comes—the annual onslaught of Christmas catalogs. I saw one the other day that stopped me in my tracks. On the cover a young man emerged from what looked to be a snow-capped forest. With his hair nicely combed, he had a smile that began at one cheek and finished at the other. He was pulling an evergreen tree. Freshly cut, you could almost feel the tree’s sticky sap and smell its pine needles. On the leash in front of him was his pampered pup, fit with a winter sweater. It was the picture of holiday bliss.
The ensuing days will only bring more fine catalogs and images to our doorstep: dogs nestled in their basket asleep by the fire; Christmas cards lining the fireplace; children building their first snowman; and, finally, that classic image of the picturesque New England village decked out for the holidays.
Everything looks so perfect and peaceful. (Norman Rockwell eat your heart out!) Impulsively, if previous years are any indication, I want to buy what they are selling. No, not the products inside the catalogs, but the images on the covers. They’re so inviting, yet so deceptive at the same time. If I want those postcard holidays though, I’m told that I have to purchase quite a few of their items first.
As much as I try to resist, I must admit that I’ve already begun to fall victim to the image. My wife and I recently decided upon our Christmas card. Believe me when I say it was no easy task choosing the perfect picture. There, in angelic pose, Cara and Brendan are seated on a swing. (Little did they know at the time that they would soon find themselves on refrigerators and desks nationwide.) Dressed to the nines, that photo communicates class and sophistication. From the outside, one could believe that this family has its act together.
If only they knew. Beneath the gloss the smudge marks aren’t hard to miss. As with any children, fine clothes are quickly stained. Calm and properly seated children disappear in an instant. The amity between sister and brother evolves inevitably into sibling rivalries of one sort or another.
On a more serious note, my own smudge marks surface. As a product of divorce, I struggle over whether this will be the Christmas I’ll finally get together with my dad. It’s always been easy in the past coming up with other plans. Similarly, distant relationships with brothers are called into question as to what it will take to bridge the gap. Petty jealousy and suppressed envy become all the more ugly in the face of the abundance of gifts that I eventually awaken to and see all around me. There is always more beneath the surface. If only I could get beyond the superficial. But I want that cover image too much.
As the season of Advent draws ever closer, I’m drawn to the image of the Holy Family. Whether they are pictured en route to Bethlehem or huddled around a manger with the baby Jesus, it’s become all too romantic for me. Or, dare I say, irrelevant. The real, historical context escapes us. The joy of the cards on our mantles masks the actual exhaustion on Mary’s and Joseph’s faces. A quaint inn or cozy cave where Jesus will be born makes us think we have the makings of a nice camping trip when in fact, in front of us, there is a displaced, homeless family. In the shadow of adoring shepherds and gift-bearing Magi, a duplicitous and blood-thirsty king is bent on keeping power.
This is the reality that the catalogs and cards overlook. For so many of us, myself included, we’d rather hide from this side of the story. Yet the mystery of the Incarnation suggests otherwise. Our God, the God of Jesus Christ, doesn’t cover up our lives but reveals who we are and who we are called to become. For this reason our tradition rightly celebrates that our salvation is to be found amid the mess, chaos and shadows of the holidays. For surely only through them will these upcoming days truly become holy ones.
© 2014 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers