Last week was a tough one at Highland, we had several reports of people contracting or losing battles with cancer. There were heart disease and car accidents and all at what is supposed to be for many, the most joyful time of the year. Yesterday I heard the news that one of my favorite women at Highland had passed away after a quick battle in the Hospital. After talking to her husband, I had the same thought that I have almost every time I hear that death has claimed someone else that loved and lived well. Death, no matter how natural the causes, is always unnatural.
On the Christmas tree in the Storment living room, we have your standard ornaments of Candy Canes and Glass bulbs, Ceramic ginger-bread and half-tangled Christmas lights. But the ornament that means the most to me each year is the Scottie Pippen collectible Christmas ornament. But in order to understand that one, you have to know something else first.
When I was growing up in Benton Arkansas, Richard lived a few houses down the street from me. He was home schooled, we played everyday together, were on the same teams, participated in the same extra-curricular activities, and basically lived the same lives. Richard was closer than a brother to me. When he went to the hospital for Juvenile Diabetes in his early teens, I went to visit him everyday.
Every year after Christmas presents were opened, I always made the same phone call. It was to Richard, we would compare the loot that we brought in from Jesus’ birthday. And the house we would play at for the rest of the week depended on who wound up getting the better haul. When I would come home from college, or later from Richland Hills for the Christmas Holiday, Richard and I would always hang out. It always felt like we never missed a beat.
About 5 years ago, Richard passed away suddenly from complications due his diabetes. It felt like for a couple of weeks I had been kicked in the chest. But after the dust settled, one of the things his parents gave me was his Scottie Pippen Christmas ornament (Richard was always a sucker for collectibles). And every year when I hang it up on the Christmas tree, I tell Leslie and the kids a story about Richard, one more time.
There’s a time in Luke 2, when Mary and Joseph take Jesus to the temple as a young boy for Passover. But this year Jesus slips away and gets separated from their family, he stays back at the Temple and spends time asking the Priests and Rabbis questions. Mary and Joseph, make it an entire day of travel before they notice that they’d brought the humus but left the Son of God. It’s probably the most familial picture we have of Jesus. After all there are a ton of families that have done something goofy like this and laugh about it for years to come. And it says that Mary treasured all these things in her heart.
I wonder about how this played out after Jesus grew up. Jesus gave the responsibility of caring for his mother to John, but nobody could replace Jesus for Mary. He was, after all, her firstborn son. He was the Messiah for the world, but he was also her baby. And every special day since then Jesus absence would have been extremely painful, because his presence had been terribly real. Now he was present for the whole world, but he was missing from home.
I read last year that more people commit suicide in the holidays than any other time of year. USA Today said that as many as 21% of Americans are depressed at Christmas. All those memories of the Christmas past come flooding in, and the absences of loved ones, or broken relationships are accentuated by the expectation of great joy, or memories of joy gone by.
Christmas is also the recognition of God feeling that too. God, after all, enters a time of violence, poverty, genocide and tragedy. Christmas is a time that we celebrate God experienced all those things as well. It’s where we remember that we don’t lose or suffer alone.
I love the phrase Luke uses about Mary “treasuring up these things in her heart.” But I wonder what Mary did with those memories she’d treasured up. She had 30 great years with her son before she had to let him move on to the serious business of saving the world, and by the end of it she had a heart full of memories. I wonder how she used them?
The Christian Hope says that God will restore all those relationships shortened by death, and the Christian faith says that God suffers with us as we mourn their absences. But Christmas past reminds us, that at the very least, God has been faithful in the past. He’s given us friends to laugh with, and family to love with. He’s given us a life that was full enough to miss when parts of it begin to slip away. And that is something to be grateful for. Because pain means that those treasures in your heart were worth keeping. And nothing can take that away.
So every year I hang up Scottie Pippen on the Christmas tree, and parts of me wishes for more time with Richard, and part of me hopes for the day when that relationship is restored. But part of me is just grateful for 26 years with a good friend who helped make me into who I am today.
The Ghosts of Christmas Past are real.
And for that I am grateful.