I’m not usually a stickler for tradition. In our family there are very few things we “have” to do for Christmas. We can decorate the tree three days before Christmas, and I won’t complain. We can eat tacos on Christmas Day, and it won’t bother me a bit. We can skip the driving tour of Christmas lights, and you’ll hear nary a word. But don’t mess with my nativity scene.
It started when I was a child. Each year we put up the nativity scene together as a family. My sister and I would take turns reading the story out of the Bible, while the other one moved all the figurines into place. I have continued the tradition, so as far as I know, every year of my life I have set up the nativity scene in this manner, often inviting a close friend or two to participate. I now have memories of family and friends from years past—some who are no longer part of my life, others who always will be. In my memory, these scenes have always been joyful, peaceful, even sacred events.
And then there was last night. It was December 20 and our nativity scene had not yet been put up, so we tried to squeeze it between family dinner and the Longest Night Service at church. Things did not go as planned. I read the scripture but the kids kept arguing, and my wife was trying to protect the moment for me. While I tried to read of peace on earth, I heard:
–Give me the cow.
–You already have a cow.
–But I made a space for it.
–It’s my cow. And my donkey. And my camel.
–Stop bumping them into each other. You’re going to break another horn.
–I smell pee.
–Why do our donkeys only have one ear?
–It’s a cult.
–Mom, she took my cow!
–I still smell pee. Why am I smelling pee?
By the time I got to the magi “going home by another way,” I was ready to find an alternate route, myself. I said nothing when my teenager stood up and declared, “I’m glad I only have to do that one more time before I go to college.” I swallowed my disappointment that she doesn’t treasure my tradition, knowing full well that it has always been more about my needs than about my children’s.
I went to church to lead our Longest Night Service, a service we offer each year for those who are struggling. It’s not a well-attended service, but I offer it every year because it’s so important for those who do attend. I led us through words and silence as I lit candles of grief, pain, fear, and struggle. We sang O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. We lit votive candles, some of us naming our burdens, others not.
I looked out at the people gathered. I know what brought many of them to that service—the pains they carry, the losses that are fresh, the losses that are old but will never heal. And I suddenly realized the connection between this service and the rushed and unsatisfying ritual I left at home. Pain comes when things are not what we want them to be. We aren’t standing next to our beloved. Our relationships are not what we hoped for. We argue over who has what and our noses are filled with the scent of failure. It’s no wonder so few people want to come and name that, because once we do, there’s no going back to pretending.
After we lit our candles, I read the words of It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, with its haunting third verse:
Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long,
beneath the angel-strain have rolled two thousand years of wrong;
and we, through bitter wars, hear not the love-song which they bring:
O hush the noise and end the strife, to hear the angels sing!
The angels sing a love song . . . a song about God’s love for humanity, in all our brokenness, in all our not-enough-ness, in all our too-much-ness. In spite of everything, still, the angels sing. Still, love is born. Still, we walk toward the dawn.
Always. Nevertheless. Still.