"It is going to be a lousy Christmas this year."
That was the headline of a news article I read a few months ago. It was referring to the prediction that consumer spending would be down during the upcoming holiday shopping season again this year, thus making it a less profitable year for retailers.
I want the economy to improve as much as anybody does, but I had a rather negative reaction to the headline. I really don't want an economist telling me that Christmas will be lousy this year. I guess I don't want anybody telling me that.
I realize that we often have higher expectations for the Christmas season than the season can produce. We have romanticized the holiday with many secular themes and images.
Growing up in Pennsylvania I equated Christmas with cold and snow, you know - sleigh bells and warm fires, roasting chestnuts, etc. But I have lived primarily in the South and Southwest for the last 30 years, making snow and Christmas somewhat contradictory. I still haven't fully adapted to some of the realities of this shift in climate that clashes with the traditional images.
Children might be disappointed if the expected toy does not arrive. In fact, I can be disappointed if the book or toy I expect does not arrive. As I grow older I am increasingly aware of the melancholy that can come with Christmas memories along with the joy they also bring. I know all that.
The holiday season can be hard for many reasons, but most of those reasons relate to the high expectations on the secular side more than the deep meaning on the theological side.
I want to make clear that I am not here to protest the secularization of Christmas. I like some of the romanticized traditions. There are a few toys I wish for. Memories are important to me. Each year when Judy and I decorate our tree I find many of the ornaments bring back vivid and fond memories of experiences and relationships we have enjoyed along life's journey.
But I try to keep all that alongside the deeper meaning that I experience Christmas to hold. And it is at that point I wonder how one could describe any Christmas as lousy?
I suppose that is a theological statement, but it is the theological perspective we in the church are supposed to bring to the season no matter how the rest of the world looks at it. In fact, the more the world feels the season is lousy the greater the need for understanding the faithful meaning this holy birthday celebration offers.
The familiar Carol "O Little Town of Bethlehem" captures it well when it says "the hopes and fears of all the years are met in you tonight." That is the gist of it all. God is coming to humankind with an embodiment of hope that drives away the heavy weight of our fears.
The great songs in the Gospel of Luke have Mary and Elizabeth singing about the wonder and world altering nature of this hope. Shepherds see it without really knowing what they see. But they leave content. This assuredly victorious embodiment of hope in the child of Bethlehem can not make for a lousy Christmas.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas many of us light candles to begin to illuminate not only our way to the manger but also to serve as reminders of what we will find when we get there: hope, peace, love, and joy. I can't find lousy in any of them.
May God's promise birthed in Mary's child open your heart with love, fill your songs with joy, surround our earth in peace, and bring the hope that not only meets but also conquers our deepest fears.
The Rev. Stephen Sterner is the UCC's executive minister for Local Church Ministries and a member of the UCC's five-person Collegium of Officers.