Each year, I send a Christmas photo card to family and friends with our family Christmas letter enclosed. The photo card consists of both individual pictures of each family member as well as one picture of all of us together. The family letter features a picture of our pets, our good news of the past year, accomplishments and celebrations of each family member and for all of us as a whole.
This year as I put together the pictures I instinctively knew that this was probably the last year the face our sweet Abraham would grace our family Christmas card. On Sunday, we had to say goodbye to our 16-year-old dog, Abraham (right in above photo), who brought so much joy and unconditional love to our family. As we spent the day reminiscing about Abraham, the girls both said how glad our Christmas cards had already gone out so we would not have to think about how to share the sad news of the death of our beloved Abe in the Christmas letter.
I thought about how interesting it is that so many of us, my family being no exception, have a perfectionist filter through which we try to portray our families, our situations, and even the world during the holidays.
For example, one of the unwritten rules of the Christmas mailing is that although I create the card and write the letter each family member has an opportunity to do their own edits. This usually comes with the standard complaints of "I look terrible in that picture! Let me send you a better one." or "I don't like how you phrased this in the letter, what about saying this instead..."
Each year, I send out the shiniest portrait and story of our family. I imagine we all do that to some extent in the holiday season. We mistakenly think the season is about capturing some sort of idealist perfection. Even though we know life is not like this even for a holiday season.
One year when we took a family trip to Israel, I was determined to get the "perfect" picture of the family in Bethlehem for that year's Christmas card. I had envisioned the backdrop of the city, like it is often featured on Christmas cards. Yet, instead of the silhouetted version; ours would be the full majesty of our family standing on the holy ground of Jesus' birthplace.
What I did not expect was the reality of Bethlehem. When we entered into the armed gates of the city, we were instantly met with graffitied cement walls and litter-strewn streets. Bethlehem was not the beautiful city I had imagined. The Church of the Nativity was also not what I had imagined it would be either.
Well known as a holy site (Nativity Grotto) is a church that was built over what is thought to be the cave in which Jesus was born. Although the Church itself was beautiful, all I can remember is being rushed down the stairs and back up to the main level of the church as the tour guide loudly commanded, "Keep walking down follow the arrows, keep walking; follow the arrows. Now look to your right. That hole is the part of the cave. You may pay homage to this holy site. Now look to your left, take those stairs back up. Keep walking. Keep walking and follow the arrows." This was the birthplace of Jesus? This was the most holy site I waited a lifetime to see?
However, the next day it struck me at how perfect the experience truly was. In retrospect, as I considered the dirt and grime of that city, I realized Bethlehem was the perfect birthplace of Jesus. We proclaim that the Christ child was born into humble beginnings to remind us that he was Emmanuel, God-With-Us, but it was not until seeing Bethlehem with my own eyes that I understood the power and beauty of this message.
I think we try so hard to make our Christmas traditions picture perfect; we miss the true message of the birth event. Jesus was born into the world. Jesus was born into this flawed, imperfect, messy world to be forever present with us in our joys and in our sorrows, in our times of laughter and in our times of tears, in our victories and in our defeats, and in our moments of celebration as well as our moments of humiliation.
Dear friends, even though the temptation is to strive for the perfect Christmas cards, letters, dinners, gifts, celebrations and worship services, remember that there is no need to seek that kind of perfection. The only perfection we need to seek is the presence of the Christ child to be present with us in all times, all seasons, and all circumstances in our lives, our families, our churches, our communities and our world.
Blessings, Rev. Shana Johnson, Conference Minister