Christmas is about with-ness. Love came down, God with us, and Emmanuel. Of course I love this idea and it rings true in the greater, redemptive sense. But in daily life, it can be really hard to sense the with-ness of Jesus.
Growing up, Christmas was all about togetherness. When even one of us four siblings went off to read or do our own thing in a different room on a December evening, it was a matter of time before sibling or parent would notice and come looking for the one lost sheep to join the family in the living room.
Tree decorating, cookie decorating, house decorating, family parties, church, advent calendar. Together, together, together.
Christmas is also, however, about absence. It’s about our deep and unfulfilled ache for that very same withness. Now, they’re playing my song.
You see, my childhood was built and founded on a principle of family togetherness. This is not a bad thing, but oh, how it makes a life without family stand in stark contrast. It’s not only the silent nights and showing up to events alone, although those vary in difficulty. It’s the lack of cherishing, the blank emptiness of no partnership in daily living, the constant need to be aware that I am not allowed to need the friend-for-life.
After six months of unemployment, I am working again, driving a long and stressful commute to an office where everyone tries to get as much work in as they can so they can go home to their families.
I had a meltdown a few years ago, when my sister and roommate, newly engaged, jaunted happily off with her fiancé to pick out a christmas tree for our house. I had to confess to her later about how deeply that hurt me. For the previous three years, we had picked out a christmas tree together for our house. In my mind’s eye, I could see the spiraling future years where she and her husband would merrily pick out a tree each year, cozily building a home, a family, and a legacy of traditions, and oh, that glimpse of beautiful with-ness, it just made me feel the cold pinch of loneliness more.
This deep unfulfillment, this sadness, this absolute aloneness. It overwhelms me. I know I am not the only one, but that doesn’t make it better. I could list off so many dear friends who through some life circumstances are feeling a profound lack of with-ness, separated from family by death or maybe just by life.
I have never had a Christmas tree since that year, but it’s not out of bitterness or anger. It’s just too much trouble for one person. Christmas trees are for celebration, for togetherness. I am not a grinch—I put lights up and snowflakes on my windows, and get cozy with baking and spiced cider. But I am not likely to even have anyone over to my house during this Christmas season. Everyone is busy with family and events; even extending an invitation seems like an imposition on the precious little time people have. Friends with kids find it difficult to bring kids to other people’s houses this time of year, friends without kids are typically busy with parents and family, too.
Since I’m the far-away family member, I will sleep on the couch in my parents’ basement for Christmas. I will wrap my presents here, but keep them in a box by the front door so I will remember to bring them home. I will put some miles on my car, getting back and forth. I will accept the time my siblings have to spend with me, and while they are with their in-laws, I will read or crochet or make plans with my mom. On Christmas eve, this year I will be the only single member of my family circle. (My youngest sister is experiencing a different kind of Christmas in South Korea this year).
The thing is, the joyous fulfillment side of Emmanuel is so meaningful not in spite of the emptiness, but precisely because of it. I am 35, and I know that without some kind of miracle, I will likely never be the mother and wife I wanted to be. I will never have the family I deeply desire. I will be compelled to support myself by working 60-hour weeks indefinitely, only to be seen as the one with the least to lose, because I only have myself to take care of.
I write this not to provide yet another rant of the single girl, lonely and with enough time for self-centered therapeutic writing, but because I know I am not the only one leaning into the solitary side of Christmas.
My people are mourning losses; children far from home, the killing calm of cancer’s invasion, the sorrow of infertility, the helplessness of unemployment, the frustration of poverty, the burdens of debt, the heavy loads of injustice, the deep mysteries of grief.
But the promise of Christmas is with-ness. And in all the ways that Jesus came to be with us, none of those ways fit the expected narrative. He was the original disruptor. Jesus’ family didn’t fit the mold; and I find comfort in that.
The promise that speaks to me during this Christmas season is one of the Beatitudes; those who mourn will be comforted. And so, as others of the church lean into the joyful tidings of this season, I will turn to this promise that mourning matters, that loneliness matters, that grief matters.
And tidings of comfort and joy. O, tidings of comfort and joy.