I’ve never donned a beard or red suit for Christmas. So far that’s my personal line.
But something happens when you have kids. Categories of cool, kitsch, hip, or tacky no longer matter much. It’s a short distance from this to mowing the lawn wearing black dress tube socks with sandals and a Santa hat (I live in Florida; this is possible). But mostly the shift is a good, liberating change.
Why? Because you’re freed from caring what others think of you, and even a bit from what you think of you, into concentrating more on how you can love others. In this case, particularly one’s children.
Our hand-me-down Christmas tree, though plastic, has lost half its needles, but I love it because my two-year-old son and six-year-old daughter love it. I hung Christmas lights on the house for the first time in my life, a simple line of colorful LED icicles across the top of the garage. Yet the kids proudly cheered.
Last night I was preparing our kids to go to the town Christmas parade, which pre-progeny I would have avoided. Just before getting in the car I received a text from a family my wife and I remain very close to from our time living and working in Haiti.
The text’s essence: Sorry to bother you with this, but our families are hungry, all of us, including the children, and we’re struggling without enough money to buy food.
Takes a little of the “Ho, Ho, Ho!” out of the parade.
But not in a bad way. It’s never bad to be called to pay attention to love. I need reminders all the time, sometimes subtly, sometimes with a smack.
In this case, the reminder is to keep the ache of Advent—which means “coming”—alive in all its hope and discomfort.
We’re in a season of anticipating the incarnation, a once-and-done event in Jesus. But there’s still an awful ache for hopeful arrival.
For the message Jesus read from Isaiah at the opening of his ministry to be realized in our communities.
For that presence of grace and peace to be realized and renewed again in our lives.
For nobody to have to send a text like the one my friends sent yesterday.
So I don’t mind if the jolly, white-bearded one shows up in the parade, as long as another bearded one shows up prominently this season too: John the Baptist. This is Advent and Incarnation through Mark’s gospel, which doesn’t start with a birth narrative but with John shouting from the banks of the Jordan River, “Prepare the way.”
Because I think John the Baptist is a realist Santa, who instead of 50%-off shortcuts to what is jolly, actually points toward a realist route to a truer joy.
Repentance. Preparation. Humility. Judgment. Justice.
Scrooge, some would say. A list like that at Christmas time!
No, Scrooginess would be to obstruct real joy by settling for a counterfeit. I want generous helpings of the real thing, even if I would prefer milk and cookies to locusts and honey.
I want the liberating joy we can find when we care less about what others think of us and care more about pointing humbly toward the one who cares deeply about all of us.
I want joy that can survive (that doesn’t avoid, but responds to) the text I received from my friends in Haiti.
The jingling jolliness of this season is fun with my kids, but can’t survive adult reality. Joy that can survive comes in glimpses of the good news John was preparing us for, that we await each Advent to come anew because we desperately need to hear it all over again, year after year: that somehow God is with us, yes, even in all of this.
This is sublime joy that can endure, which arrives with Love itself being born, even unto us, in a stable of straw and muck.
Kent Annan is author of the new book After Shock: Searching for Honest Faith When Your World is Shaken. He is co-director of Haiti Partners and also author of Following Jesus through the Eye of the Needle. (100% of the author proceeds from both books go to education in Haiti.)