When Traditions Fail Us

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Who needs that kind of loving presence? An estranged family member?

Are you among those blessed people for whom Christmas is a time of unalloyed joy and fellowship with friends and family, along with deepened gratitude for the wonder of God’s gift to us in Bethlehem? If so, feel free to skip this article.

If, on the other hand, the Christmas season has become for you a time of rushing around and tension, of ever-increasing obligation to entertain or to buy gifts or to receive gifts you didn’t particularly want, of loud but increasingly secular worship services, of a secret or not-so-secret wish that January would come and it would all be over for another year— then read on. Those of us who are counselors can testify that for many people, the Christmas season brings out the relationship fault lines in families, in friendships, and even in the church. Christmas awakens the pains of loss, of hopes unfulfilled, of dreams never realized. It heightens the awareness that life will never be as it was or as it should be.

Maybe we need to take another look at that manger in Bethlehem. Let’s strip it of all the gloss that has been added over the years, of the sentimentality that helps us avoid the harsh reality of an utterly helpless baby, born in a barn to a poor unwed girl far from home, unattended by any midwife. Why on earth would God choose such a messy entry into our world? It defies all human sense of how it should have been. Immanuel? God-with-us? Really?

Does that manger picture remind you of anything in the world today? Isn’t that harsh birth a reality for many in the refugee camps in Kenya? For many Native women in Canada? In our own North American cities? Of course, you say. Poverty and neglect are everywhere. We contribute what we can and pray things will get better.

But wait. True caring requires loving presence. Loving presence is, after all, the essence of the incarnation, of God-with-us.

Caring takes time. It takes living into another’s situation. It means anticipating the other’s needs and respecting her humanity and dignity. True caring is incarnational—being with the other.

So take a look around your own world. Who needs that kind of loving presence? An estranged family member? A parent who is a challenge to be with? A gay son or daughter or the partner you haven’t welcomed? Neighbors for whom this is their first Christmas away from their native country, who might not know about God entering this world? A student far from home?

Give the gift of loving presence, and welcome them into your home. Take a day, perhaps with your kids, to volunteer at your local mission. Giving money is important, but also try to be lovingly present to some of the people there. Receive from them as well as giving them your time and presence.

“All well and good,” you say, “But how can I possibly find time for all that in addition to the other things I have to do?”

Perhaps you need to take a look at those “other things.” Are they so essential? Do they really contribute to your joy and spiritual health? Most of us need, over the years, to examine the traditions we have built up around Christmas and refine or discard them as they become less meaningful or as the family grows and changes. Some, for example, drop the gift exchange as children get older and spend a few days together, giving each other the gift of time.

God is incarnate in Bethlehem. So let’s create traditions that help us live incarnationally. Then our Christmas will be truly blessed.

About the Author

Mary Vander Vennen is a retired psychotherapist living in Toronto. She is a member of Grace Christian Reformed Church, Scarborough, Ontario.
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