I’ve never experienced a Christmas that felt less like Christmas than this one does.
It’s Christmas Eve, but it feels like just another gray and rainy winter day. I had some work to do at the office, but I was the only one in the building. By the time I left around 3:30 p.m., the rain had stopped and the clouds started to clear as the winds turned bitterly cold.
I didn’t want to be alone, but I couldn’t think of anywhere to be with anybody who I wanted to see. I had planned to go to a Christmas Eve service at my church. There were three services through the afternoon and evening, to accommodate the crowds and still maintain safe distances. But I suddenly realized that if I couldn’t be with a family of my own, the last thing I wanted was to see other happy and loving families together.
As I drove home — lost in thoughts of missing connection — I remembered the chapel at a monastery along my route. I wasn’t dressed appropriately, but I stopped and asked the guard at the gate whether the chapel was open. He warmly encouraged me to go right in.
“There’s a service at 8 tonight, but you’d be the only one in there right now,” he said.
There was actually one older woman in the building. Other than that, the ornate little chapel was dead silent except for the gentle hum of the heating system.
I sat alone on a back pew in the far right corner. With my head down, I thought about why I was there and why I felt such a need to find the presence of God on this lonely day.
My prayers were a jumble of feelings and hurts and needs. I grew up in a theological environment where prayer and teaching and all of our theology was extremely rational and formal and even cold. But I’m far past that. I have more questions than I ever did — and fewer certainties than I thought I had — but I know I can often find an inexplicable connection to a God who I can’t possibly explain.
As I thought about this Christmas season, I thought about the formal theology around how I had been taught the season. I also thought about the secular orgy of materialism and pleasure that it’s become for most people.
But it hit me that what we’re really celebrating is the attempt by our Creator to reach out to us and make a connection. Whatever you think about the theology of the story, the Christmas narrative is about a Creator who made human beings to be like himself — and who decided to become one of us in order to bring us together in love and save us from ourselves.
Humans tend to be so confused about what they really need. When they feel dissatisfied and unhappy, they pursue things that seem that they could help. They pursue wealth and pleasure and whatever else might make others give them honor and glory. They don’t say that’s what they’re doing, but they’re so afraid of what others think of them that they spend their lives trying to seem worthy of praise.
But none of those things create lasting satisfaction or peace. There’s still something missing. So we humans keep pushing for more — more of whatever we’ve believed would make us “good enough” — and it never seems to be enough.
As I sat in the chapel Thursday evening — with the sun sinking on the horizon outside — I found myself realizing that none of what I’ve ever done mattered insofar as meeting my real needs or giving me peace.
None of my achievements of the past mattered. None of the praise I’d had from other people. None of the money I had made and spent. None of the wins I had thought defined me. It was all meaningless.
The only thing that mattered to me — the only thing that had ever mattered — was connecting with a Creator who’s always been there for me — and connecting with others in love and peace and understanding.
Everything we believe is so important is meaningless. Our money. Our success. Our lands. Our pride. Our image in the eyes of others. All of those things are just vanity.
All that matters is love and connection — with God and with one another.
I felt God’s presence in that hour alone in the chapel. I felt his warmth and love. I was still alone in body, but it made me burn with love that I needed to share.
I don’t care what you believe about theology or God or Christmas, but I can tell you for absolute certainty that this connection — with God and with the people we need to love — are the real meaning of this old, old story.
The tale is simple. Men and woman tend to make a mess of their lives. We can’t save ourselves. But because of his love for us, God reaches down to where we are — and offers to connect us — to himself and to each other. That love and connection can save us if we allow it to.
But it’s still a choice. We can remain unbelieving and stubborn, as we live the way the world does. Or we can can choose to accept the gift he offers — and choose to love. Choose to connect.
All that the world offers is useless. Love and connection are all that matters.
Each time I realize this yet again, I’m saved from myself and from this world’s fallenness — and I’m filled with the longing to love and to connect in the way that our Creator intended.
Christmas is about God reaching out to us — by becoming one of us — to give us that connection. If we ignore that, whatever else we put in its place is empty and meaningless.