… Christmas is not only the mile-mark of another year, moving us to thoughts of self-examination: it is a season, from all its associations, whether domestic or religious, suggesting thoughts of joy. A man dissatisfied with his endeavours is a man tempted to sadness. And in the midst of the winter, when his life runs lowest and he is reminded of the empty chairs of his beloved, it is well he should be condemned to this fashion of the smiling face. Noble disappointment, noble self-denial are not to be admired, not even to be pardoned, if they bring bitterness. It is one thing to enter the kingdom of heaven maim; another to maim yourself and stay without. And the kingdom of heaven is of the childlike, of those who are easy to please, who love and who give pleasure. (from “A Christmas Sermon” by Robert Louis Stevenson)
This weekend, I spent 48 hours in bed. Why do I do this to myself? Can’t I just will myself to get up, take a shower, drink some coffee, and start my day with prayer? Maybe I could. But I don’t. Instead of doing the very things I know will help me find more delight in God and God’s creation, I toss and turn, “dissatisfied with [my] endeavours,” “tempted to sadness.”
Sometimes we think we are doing good when we are our own worst critics. We count ourselves “noble” to set unattainable goals then feel miserable when we fall short (and repeat the cycle, or do even worse the next time). We see this a lot this time of year, with new year’s resolutions, promises we make to ourselves or vows we make to others that this year things are going to be different. I have so many regrets and now, perhaps foremost among them, I regret most that I have so many regrets. This vicious regretting cycle has kept me from delighting in the One who delights in me.
In his “A Christmas Sermon”, Stevenson shows that this human instinct to become embittered with ourselves when we fail only leads us to be even more critical of others. This was precisely the thing Jesus accused the Pharisees (the religious leaders of his day) of doing. Trying to live not only by the letter but by the brush strokes of each letter of the law, they wound up enforcing it on others and overlooking ways they could improve themselves.
So what do we do instead? Does this mean we set no goals, have low standards or no standards at all? I don’t think so. It means we re-direct our focus away from ourselves and direct our focus to… children. Children, says Stevenson, find pleasure in the simplest of things. They love. They delight in the life God has given them. And they share joy with others.
Children can be good teachers. Not that they are innocent, but they are more at ease being in a dependent relationship, being grateful for what they are given, sharing love freely instead of trying to bargain for something at a price, being pleased and giving pleasure. Laughing for the sheer joy of laughing.
The meaning of Christmas is found in the birth of a child. What child is this? Not just any child, but the Christ child. The One so connected with our Heavenly Father that he says, “This is my beloved Son. In him I am well pleased.”
As I write this, people throughout the world are preparing for the annual celebration of this holy, unique child. For some, it seems preposterous, scandalous, even blasphemous, to believe that God was born an infant child, as weak as we are. For others it seems a ridiculous play, acting out wishes that can never come true.
Yet still others, including me, find that the story of Christmas is written in our hearts. Even on days we find it next to impossible to get out of bed. Even on those days we fail to show gratitude for the gifts we are given. Even on days we fail to care for the bodies God gave us as temples.
Even, perhaps especially, on the most difficult day, we can be grateful for the One born in a stable. The One who came not to weigh us down with the burden of regret, but to show us the Way to start over. The One who came not to embitter us with shame, but to lead us in Truth through dark valleys. The One who came not to condemn us to eternal death, but to give us the hope of New Life.
There is no greater gift than the gift of a child, the gift of the Beloved Child. What Child This Is!