I have cherished memories of Christmas from my childhood. I remember the anticipation I felt when the Advent wreath was added to the church chancel, how I watched intently each week as another candle was lit. I especially looked forward to the lighting of the pink candle, the joy candle, which meant Christmas was almost upon us. My parents were of German heritage, so it was our custom to open presents on Christmas Eve, following a candlelight worship service at our country church surrounded by farm fields. As children, we believed Santa came during the worship service, so we arrived home from church to find presents under our tree. But, in truth, I looked forward just as eagerly to the Christmas Eve worship service. My sisters and I always had some lines to recite by memory, songs to sing in the children’s choir, or a piece to play on the piano or flute. That night felt holy, happy, and filled with sacred mystery above all other nights.
I lost those feelings of anticipation, the sense of deep holiness I associated with Christmas as I grew up. I weighed myself down with things that had nothing to do with Christmas and everything to do with expectations. As an adult I worried about the family budget, about what toys to buy my children, and what toys not to buy them. I worried about who was coming to dinner and how many. I worried about whether they would consult me over the dish they intended to bring. I worried about how much alcohol people drank. I worried the movies we watched were too secular. In short, I worried and obsessed over everything that amounted to nothing. Over the years, I grew to dread Christmas, the work and planning it entailed. The anxiety it brought. The arguments. The impossible-to-meet expectations.
During one particularly painful Christmas, I went for a run to see if I could find some kind of clarity, some peace within myself. Near the end of it, when I was tired and had given in to the rhythm of my strides, my breath, I had a moment in which I thought about the enormous faith God showed sending Jesus to such a primitive and violent world. Then I thought, wait a minute. We’re supposed to have faith in God. God isn’t supposed to have faith in us. Right?
The more I thought about this, the more a sense of wonder and astonishment began to grow in my chest. I had to stop running and catch my breath. Could God really love and believe in us, God’s creation, so much that God would bet everything—God’s very son—on our willingness to love and cherish such a precious gift? It didn’t seem possible.
Perhaps it was just new words around an old story. But I felt that if God had that kind of love for and faith and trust in humanity—in me—maybe I could find a way to lift out of my sadness, my tired and joyless approach to Christmas. If God had faith in me, perhaps I could find some in myself.
Recently I watched a popular television show called “Call the Midwife.” It’s not a show I watch regularly, but I happened to watch an old Christmas special. I did not know that the show was based on the memoirs of a woman named Jennifer Worth. As a memoirist myself, I sat up and paid attention as an actress narrated Worth’s words at the beginning of the episode. Worth said we have a responsibility to “burnish” Christmas each and every year. It was a phrase I’d never heard before, but I instantly liked it.
When I shared it with my husband, he asked, “What does that mean to you?”
We burnish things that are precious to us, but that also have been around a long time and tend to grow dull and tarnished if we’re not careful. To me, burnishing Christmas means it’s our job to find ways to make it new again. If we are careless towards it, it can lose its deep meaning.
I go back to that moment of insight on that Christmas years ago when I felt a welling up of gratitude and humility at God’s enormous love for and faith in humanity. I’m not discounting the evil that exists in all of us. But what I felt in that moment was God’s Spirit stirring in me, reminding me that I am beloved even in my failures. Reminding me that God believes in me. God trusts me with the precious gift of God’s son and trusts me to share the love Jesus embodied in ways that last far beyond the mindless preparations and petty annoyances that marked my Christmases past.
This year the joy of Christmas might be especially hard to grasp as we stay distant from each other to stay well. Some people are facing great financial difficulties. Others are facing the loss of health or the loss of a beloved family member. And still others have lost the deeply human need to feel safe.
So I return to that word “burnish.” Burnish implies we bring some effort, some determination to see a holiday that may seem tarnished and dull, as beautiful once more. And with that effort, we remember Christmas is God’s greatest reminder that we are all God’s beloved.
Beloved. Beloved. Beloved.
Let us say that to ourselves as often as we can this Christmas. Everything else fades away.