-Cormac McCarthy, The Road
And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger -Luke 2:12 (ESV)
Over the past several weeks I have been inundated by the “must-have”, “top picks”, “get it now” gift-giving culture that saturates our celebration of Christmas in Western Christendom. I have also finally gotten around to reading Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer-prize winning book The Road, a bleak, dark, at-world’s-end story of the love between a father and son as they pilgrim through the wastelands of earth. To put it mildly, the contrast is striking.
There is an obvious contrast between the landscape of plenty and one of privation, between the shimmer of materialism and the ashen backdrop of a world laid bare – and there is something important to learn there, I am sure. But the more striking contrast for me as I tether the casually indulgent gift promotions that populate my inbox against McCarthy’s searingly austere narrative is the nagging sense that while gifts and free shipping are what I most readily use to commemorate the Incarnation, there is an unsettling, cheap ease to “one-click” ordering that seems profoundly uncorrelated to the abundantly kind and costly gift that is this season’s genesis. On the contrary, the charred, elegiac, hopeless trek of father and son among ruins provides a stark and unmissable reminder of why, precisely, Christmas is a celebration.
Earlier this Christmas season I attended a performance of George Freidrich Handel’s The Messiah, and as I listened to this otherwise familiar oratorio I was deeply affected by the plaintive, longing tone of God’s words as they are offered through the prophet Isaiah in the opening scene:
A desire to ease the pain of His loved ones, a longing to bring healing and comfort. These are words that remind us the origins of Christmas are more complex, more tender than stocking stuffers and treats alone suggest. The origin of Christ’s coming reaches a long way back into slavery and warfare, mess and grime, desperation and isolation, gross injustice, petulance, arrogance, rebellion. God’s good creation was a land and a people laid waste, intent on their own destruction – a land not altogether different from the barren, ash-covered plains that hem in McCarthy’s road. Yet, in a very deep, and real, and true way it was that utter devastation, the hopeless state of things, the bleak future, that beckoned God to come near, to break in, to help His aimless and starving people.
It is this tender and beautiful genesis of Christmas that Handel captures so insightfully in the storytelling that gives structure to The Messiah. God longs to comfort His people in the midst of their agonies. He longs to do something, to do anything. He longs to give us Christ; to give us Christmas.
Years ago when I was in the raw, vulnerable years of dating my now-husband we found ourselves stumbling through tumultuous, angst-y, painful waters of doubt, perfectionism, fear, control, and anxiety, about ourselves, each other, and our relationship. It felt dramatic at the time – it probably was – though now I see more clearly how much it was simply a foretaste of regular life; learning how to lean into and consecrate the pain that bears power to sanctify us. We wondered how we could know if marriage was a good idea. More specifically, we wondered about binding ourselves up with one another having, already, some degree of knowledge about the breadth and nature of our flaws and imperfections. For a season or two we took breaks from one another. Painful and messy breaks with many tears, not at all like the romantic, blissful vision of being somehow “meant” for each other. Nope. We knew too much. We had already seen and suffered too much in our own lives and families by that point to trust anything that cheap. So we struggled and stumbled our way toward each other, toward the intimacy and trust needed to till the ground for a binding covenant to take healthy root.
The turning point for us, which I knew then and know even more certainly now, came in these words from my kind, and wise, and teachable husband: “I will do anything.” They were not cheap words for him. And he didn’t even offer them to me first. That came later. In uttering them he submitted himself to friends and mentors who took him at his word and started giving assignments. He bought expensive airline tickets to fly and meet with older, wiser people whom friends told him he need to talk with; he changed his schedule around to make room for regular meetings with mature and godly men and others who could help him, and us. In countless committed and disciplined ways he humbled himself for the sake of love in hopes that it would yield relationship. And it did.
Handel’s plaintive tenor bellowing God’s words of comfort, his longing to come to his people – to help them, to love them – echoes that plea. It is a pleading and a promise, “Please. I am good for you. Turn back to me. I will do anything.” The reverberations of that echo, the manifestation of that promise, is Christmas; when he gives us his own son. God humbling himself for the sake of love in hope that it will yield and foster a relationship. That He gives Him to us in a feeding trough, a dung field, is another thing altogether.
McCarthy’s narrative is sparse in dialogue and centered almost exclusively on the thoughts, reflections and impressions of the father as he cares for his only son; suffering, bleeding and vomiting their way through desolation in hopes of finding a can of peaches, an extra pair of shoes, a box of matches, anything to keep them a step further from death. As the father thinks on the disorienting timelessness of their journey, watching his son sleep through one more dark night, preceding one more dark day, he reflects:
“All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one’s heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes. So, he whispered to the sleeping boy. I have you.”
At Christmas we know there are angels in multitude shouting, trilling, dancing on the air in celebration of a gift so beautifully conceived, now given and at hand. Yet that glory is profoundly bound up with another sleeping boy, born lowly and lonely in a stable. It is not a birth in ashes, per se, but amidst straw and feed. It is not a birth in grief, exactly, though it has some roots there; but still probably a bit lonely, confusing, and uncertain for a young mother and her betrothed, exiled to labor in the animal shed.
If Christ’s coming in the manger is the fruition of God’s longing to bring comfort, however, then coming among straw and feed, grief and ashes, was really the only way to come. Comfort is not well-offered – in fact it is difficult to receive – if it does not in some way enter into the pain it seeks to ease. A phone call to a hospital room is not the same as a hand held gently, warmly at a bedside. A dollar given is not the same as sitting with a stranger sharing a hot meal. This is not to diminish our intentional efforts to show compassion – I myself am more often a phone-caller and a cash-giver than a hand-holder and meal companion. Rather, what Christmas shows us so deeply is that entering into the pain of the world is integrally bound up with entering into the beauty of the world. We cannot fully appreciate or rejoice in the trumpeting, luminous thrill and delight of a sky filled with angels without at some point stepping into the dung shed to meet Christ. It is, after all, where He has come to meet us.
As I think about these remaining few weeks of the Christmas season, my remaining 11 days of gift-buying and wrapping and shipping in particular, I think of how apt it is that Christmas is a season for gifts. God has given to us in kindness and abundance so we, too, give to one another to commemorate the joy and gratitude of that lasting gift. But I also carry with me the sense that this is a season of things held close, and closely-held things are tender things. So just as Christmas ushers in the warmth and joy of thoughtful gifts, of time with family and friends, of glad memories and fond traditions, those same happy longings and hopes and remembrances can also nudge us ever closer to our heartbreaks, our disappointments, our uncertainties. And in that way it is a volatile season, a vulnerable season, that invites us to see God as He is, the world as it is, Christmas for what it is. It is cookies and carols and trees and lights, as it should be; but the manger also makes room for grief and sadness at Christmas. They, too, bear the fearsome, wondrous, beautiful truth God pleads with us to see in every nativity. Comfort, Comfort, my people. I am here. I am in this. I am with you. Emmanuel.
Kate Harris is Executive Director of The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation, and Culture. She is wife to a very good man and mother to their three young children. She resides just outside Washington, DC in Falls Church, VA.