My first Christmas not “at home” was a few years ago. It was the first Christmas my wife and I celebrated while serving at a parish. I’m a pastor, who for the short length of my ministry, has served some distance away from my relatives. It comes with the vocation that any holiday, not just Christmas, will be away from family. One of the things that also happens for a pastor and his family is that during the most celebratory aspect of the holiday, you are distant from each other: My wife was in a pew alone by herself, and I was in the tiny chancel by myself. We were in the same room, but separate, in a congregation smaller than many families, whom we were still getting to know.
The most difficult part of the whole festival was the slow realization just how different this was for each of us. For as long as either of us could remember, we had always been together with parents, siblings, cousins, and/or grandparents at this time. We couldn’t help but think of what everyone else was doing. We missed even the most mundane things – for me, it was my family’s tradition of pizza after all attending the Christmas Eve service together. For my wife it was singing Christmas hymns on Christmas Eve in a pew full of family. Despite the objective joy of the holiday, subjectively, our happiness was difficult to find.
My purpose of this post is not to compare the vocation of pastor during the holidays with any other vocation. There are many others who have to serve away from family at the holidays – military, first responders, doctors, snow truck drivers, delivery drivers, and the list could go on and on. I have also seen too many posts on social media saying tactless sentiments like, “[so and so essential worker] always stays home, so don’t complain, stay home!!” This article is not that.
I also don’t write this to shame anyone who chooses to go home or not go home to family. We are complex beings with more than just physical needs. It is true that going home could mean helping our neighbors (family) keep his or her life. As Martin Luther once told this simple, yet profound advice to Christians during the Black Death Epidemic: “If my neighbor needs me…I shall not avoid any place or person but will go freely.”1 It is also true that this may not be possible for everyone.
Rather, what I hope to do is give some comfort to those who find themselves in a situation where they can’t be home this year, especially because of the pandemic. And this is a challenge.
Our society is not quiet about what we should be doing, or how we should celebrate the holidays. For a few weeks now, I have seen or heard sayings like “A Zoom Thanksgiving is better than an ICU Christmas.” However, platitudes like this are useless in a culture in which the whole idea of the holidays is togetherness. For secular culture, Christmas is all about family. So now, when you turn on the radio and hear, “I’ll be home for Christmas,” “Oh, Baby all I want for Christmas is you,” “There’ll be much mistletoeing And hearts will be glowing When loved ones are near…” it’s hard not to cringe. At best, the cultural themes of Christmas distract us from the real hope of Christmas. At worst, the idea of Christmas=family turns family into an idol. And, as idols will do, they take everything and give nothing back.
There is no tradition at Christmas that can fill an empty heart. Our hearts yearn to be filled, and even all the family in the world can only fill a little imperfectly.
To be sure, there’s a reason why we have holiday traditions. We are creatures who need repetition (whether we realize it or not). There is a reason we have families. Families, properly understood not as an idol but as a gift from God, are a way God preserves you and gives you “all that [you] need to support this body and life.”2
But even without these, Christmas is no less Christmas. Christmas hasn’t lost its hope or comfort. It’s actually in these hardships, these crosses, that the glory of Christmas shines.
My first year in a parish away from home for Christmas, I borrowed some words of my former pastor for my Christmas Day sermon, words that I think ring truer this year than even back then:
“We could take away the poinsettias, the trees, the lights, and everything else, and still have a Christmas celebration. All you need are two or three poor, miserable sinners huddled around Christ’s Word, and you have everything of Christmas. ‘In him was life, and that life was the light of men’ (John 1:4).”3
Christmas means that Christ became your brother. To be with you. Emmanuel. God with you. To literally share your flesh and blood. To become a part of your family. To never leave you nor forsake you. To dwell with you in your loss to take it upon Himself and give you all the riches of His grace. God gave up His son, literally separating Himself from His Son on the cross, so that He may be joined to you through His Son.
So don’t look for your Christmas hope or joy in some “uplifting” feelings. “Go to the baby in the manger, as the shepherds did. Go to the young child in the house, as the magi did. Go to man on the cross. And since you can’t literally do any of those things, go to the Word, the Baptism, and the Supper, where the Light shines to give you life!” And where these things are, is another family: Your church family; people who need you (and you need) no less than your blood family. Even if you are still getting to know them, like my wife and I were, they are your family in Jesus.4
Every Christmas, together with my church family, I am sure to plan to sing “O Jesus Christ, Thy Manger Is.” Rarely can I or my wife make it through without sobbing, not so much at the sadness of being away from our families, but at the deeper joy of the implications of Christ’s birth so beautifully explored in this hymn.
The hymn is tragically not very well known, likely because it sings of everything our culture doesn’t want Christmas to be. But it should be the theme hymn for Christmas 2020. It was written by a Lutheran Pastor named Paul Gerhardt. Gerhardt could sympathize with the worst of our crosses. He lived during a severe plague in the 1600’s as well as the 30 Years War. He lost his job as a pastor because he refused to preach false doctrine, and it was during this period that his wife died. Only one of his five children outlived him. Undoubtedly, the majority of his Christmases were spent missing family.
Hear Gerhardt’s confession of the fulfillment of his heart’s emptiness with the fulness of Christ in these verses (2, 4, 5, 6 – especially note verse 4…):
2. He whom the sea And wind obey
Doth come to serve the sinner in great meekness.
Thou, God’s own Son,
With us art one,
Dost join us and our children in our weakness.
4. Thou Christian heart, Whoe’er thou art,
Be of good cheer and let no sorrow move thee.
For God’s own Child,
In mercy mild,
Joins thee to Him—how greatly God must love thee!
5. Remember thou What glory now
The Lord prepared thee for all earthly sadness.
The angel host
Can never boast
Of greater glory, greater bliss or gladness.
6. The world may hold Her wealth and gold;
But thou, my heart, keep Christ as thy true Treasure.
To Him hold fast
Until at last
A crown be thine and honor in full measure.
Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary | 161
O Jesu Christ, dein Kripplein ist
P. Gerhardt, 1607-76
Tr. The Lutheran Hymnal, St. Louis, 1941
(You can listen to the above chorale here, performed by the choirs of Martin Luther College.)
This Christmas, if you are away from family, be sad for what you are missing and who you are not with. But rejoice in Who is with you and what you have been given. You are not alone. God is truly with you, with all His gifts of peace, forgiveness, and life.