Several years ago I began doubting that it snowed on the first Christmas. Was it in a bleak midwinter in the Middle East on a silent night, really? As I told somebody recently, you might as well sit down with me in a gazebo while you tell this story, because it all sounds like a fat cliché.
In my household we indulge in few saccharine traditions and experience virtually no perfectly framed moments. We do not annually purchase a glass figurine or make a sweet braided bread. But we do cut up the pizza with the scissors.
God has graced us with adventure rather than beauty, I think, as a natural hazard of our occupation and locale. It makes sense to us. The juvenile delinquents up the hill are punching holes in the walls, and all your nose hair freezes the second you step outside to deal with the police or board the child-eating school bus. Somebody recently hung a Thomas Kinkade in our bathroom; I have no idea how he had the courage.
I've had a hard time with Christmas while in college. I watch the choir sing about the silent night in the beautiful building beneath the engraved Bible verses and can't help thinking of how fireworks aren't the same if discharged at 7 when the darkness hasn't set. My agitation probably partly indicates the nature of my personal calling.
Christmas for me begins to really mean something when it intrudes itself upon a world that actually seems dark. I learned this in the 11th grade in Bath, N.Y., at a hotel bar. I was singing Christmas carols in the extra-special high school choir, beneath the direction of a tall skinny man so much like a match I frequently envisioned overturning him and rubbing his head against the floor to see if his hair would ignite.
He had brought us to that bar at Christmas, for it was a warm place to rehearse for our performance that evening in the park in the middle of town. Fat kids, skinny kids, ceiling sopranos, high-browed tenors, sleepy altos, and just-bearded basses, sang with Christmas grins to the inebriates of the village. It gave everyone involved immense pleasure.
We sang a song that had guts-"Joy to the World." That year "Joy to the World" became my favorite song, and it has been ever since. I realized with a jolt that it was about the whole world, about my high school and town, and about me. I had been born again because Christ had been born, and if I ever knew it, I knew it then.
"He rules the world with truth and grace." He rules the world, the boys and girls and drunk people, with truth-something I excelled at, being a zealous theological frying pan ready to smack anybody-and grace, what I most needed.
"And makes the nations prove"-that's the whole earth, a proof enormous enough for me and the Chinese to see.
"The glories of His righteousness and wonders of His love"-that's me; the wonder of His love has set me apart for paradise-that's also those around me who hate the Savior they sing of, upon whom the glories of His righteousness will demonstrate His character through judgment. Paint me a pointy beard and call me Calvin.
I felt a special dynamite, singing the truth in such a setting, which I have never felt here. Of course, there is the possibility that I am just annually grouchy when I live among Christians. I am hardly so inhuman as to feel wholly impervious to the festal, but I do love it more when I am squeezed to think about the desperate seriousness of its meaning.
This year I slept for 14 straight hours when I arrived home for Thanksgiving. I awoke in my own bedroom and fuzzily noted that abandoned doll carriages overstuffed the floor and that I barely recognized the place. And then I got up to go to the family Thanksgivings.
At my family Thanksgivings (as it probably is at yours) I may pick a pagan, any type, with whom to sit down and have dinner. On one side of the family are the expectant uncles with cool Republican virtue and control, to whom I must remember to bring my list of accomplishments. On the other side are the Mormons and their 700 children and temples and excellent hams.
Also there is one magnificent atheistic uncle whose wild stories hang as improbable as his ponytail, who insists he comprises his own universe, whose clever tongue clips quicker than his steeled toes.
And then there is me, and my atheist uncle cannot teach me to play backgammon no matter how he tries. But Emmanuel, God is with me, even though I am worthless at backgammon. By what means can I get the Christmas message to him when I go home for break? Shall I try braided breads and perfectly framed moments?
When I begin to feel the weight of the Gospel that is entrusted to me, there is suddenly nothing sugary about Christmas. But there is something electrifying, like fireworks.