I ran three miles this afternoon, a yuletide jog in 70 degree weather. I thanked God as I ran since a recent back injury prevented me from running for months. Still, I wished I were back in the northeast where today it’s ten degrees and snowy. We live in a good place in the southwest; it’s just not our place. We’re “winter wonderland” folks, my husband and me, born and raised in New England and gone for only 18 months now. At our Christmas lunch, surrounded by our kids, and pleased with how our festivities went down this morning with our preschoolers – my husband still looked at me and said: “It would be nice to be with family. It would be nice to be in the northeast.”
I knew how he felt; I felt just the same. There’s something about Christmas that calls out for family and togetherness. One wants to be among kin: those who are well- and long-known. Anyone who’s spent Christmas far from home knows the fish-out-of-water mindset we felt today. My parents lived overseas for ten years early in their marriage; we spent seven of my first ten Christmases far from grandparents and aunts and cousins. It didn’t bother me; I didn’t know any different. But I bet there were Christmases when my parents felt as I do today. Removed. Foreign.
The reality, though, is that Christmas in its true sense is all about distance and alienation. Think of Mary, far from her Nazareth home, probably longing for her mom or sister as the labor pains set in. Awash in Bethlehem’s unrecognized faces and removed from the comfort of the familiar. And embarking, no less, on a woman’s most unfamiliar event: birthing her first child.
It’s uncomfortable, sad even, to be far removed from loved ones at special times like Christmas. But that space is a God-filled space. Why does God delight to give us what we do not wish for and would not choose? Because it is Better. It’s only in those spaces that he can bring us the true gifts, those we don’t know we need and don’t want. Mary may well have wished, as she lay in the stable’s hay desperate for her Son to be born, that she was at her parents’ back in Nazareth. But what God chose to bring her that night, far from home, was Whom and what she needed. And not just she but the whole world. Sanctification, after all, literally means “set apart,” and being set apart often involves distance.
It’s not just distance, though, that marks Jesus’ birth… It’s also the longing. Jesus’ parents probably longed for their homes and beds and kin on that first Christmas. They must have longed for their parents to meet their new grandson. But bigger and holier than their momentary longing was the longing of the generations for the birth of Jesus. The throngs of people who longed desperately for Jesus for decades and centuries, crying out for the reunion with God that His presence would usher in. In “O Holy Night” I most love this line: “the thrill of hope the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.” A new morning for the waiting and weary world, and a glorious morning – the arrival of the long-expected Jesus. The hope of ages, finally come. The longing and wait that marked humanity since our first parents fall in the Garden of Eden – that wait, at last behind the world. Jesus’ birth contained a longing, yes, but the answer to longing was a far bigger part.
In Christ is fulfillment. And you can bet that whatever paths your feet may travel, however far from home and kin…. and whatever longing you may feel for another, more familiar space… it will be worth it. The distance will be worth it; the wait will be worth it; the longing will be worth it. Not only does Jesus’ birth prove it; Jesus Himself proves it. It will all be worth it. And in this is our hope… because He is our hope. So as my husband and I sat across the table at Christmas lunch today thinking of a place and people we miss, I rejoiced. God knows the reason he has us here, though it be far from home. It’s a good reason, a holy one, even. And when God is finished with the work He’s doing in us in this space and time – we’ll one day look back an see that it was good, and worth it. And we’ll praise Him for what He’s accomplished.
I hope, when my children grow up and no longer live in our house, that they’ll often come home for Christmas. But more than that, I hope they go where God takes them, following Him wherever His path leads and whatever the cost may be to their comfort… I pray they’ll trust His call in their lives and be willing to endure distance and longing to do so. Because as Christmas proves, what we want and what we need are so often not the same thing, and God knows the difference. Even so, I hope they’ll pray, come Lord Jesus.