by Kendra Thompson
For the most part, my childhood Christmases were pretty idyllic. Traveling from Colorado to Kansas City to see two sets of grandparents and being spoiled by heaps of presents; manufactured toys and handmade treasures alike. The feasts at the two houses were immense but different from one another, too. My dad’s mom, Mimi, insisted on making enchiladas for a houseful of people from a recipe she finagled out of a local Mexican restaurant. My mom’s mom, Grandma Gertie, served more traditional fare: baked ham, rolls, and her famous potato cheese casserole. The sights, smells, and sounds of Christmas reverberated throughout these two homes. Love permeated and so did Christian faith. We always commemorated our celebrations with one of us calmly reading from the second chapter of Luke’s gospel.
As I grew older, cracks appeared in our “ideal” family Christmas scene. There were times in those childhood years that crisis was about to strike, extended family members were struggling with substance abuse, criminal activity was afoot, marriages were about to split. When I look at snapshots from the mid 1990’s, I am able to read a foreshadowing tension on the faces of dear loved ones of the wreckage about to happen.
Fast forward to Christmas in my early twenties, the year is 2004. Now married, my husband and I are the ones to travel. I have a distinct memory of attending worship at my parents’ 1200+ member suburban Texas Bible church where I grew up as a middle school and high school student. It’s Christmas Eve and the sanctuary is packed. My husband, dad and I, the only ones from our family to attend worship that night, stand near the back. I watch as my former youth pastor paces the chancel and preaches the entire nativity story of Christmas in an animated and vivid report as if he’s reading the screenplay for a John Hughes’ film. I’m enraptured, even though I don’t even have a seat. I remember his careful yet imaginative description of the characters; I seem to recall the mention of a “shepherd taking a smoke break.” While I can’t recall the entire homily, I remember being struck by the “cracks” in these characters from our inspired and authoritative Bible. Could it be that the parents chosen to birth and raise Jesus weren’t that far off from my own imperfect kin?
In 2004, I was also completing my first semester of theological seminary. I jumped into that first term with gusto; practiced referring to myself as “Reverend” in the future tense. But those fall months, although insightful and engaging, had their fill of challenges, as well. It turns out, graduate coursework in religion is hard and living on meager part-time wages while completing an advanced degree produces stress. We ate a lot of just-add-water foods and I often left my Systematic Theology class, bound for my afternoon job with at-risk youth, wondering what things like “atonement” and “total depravity” really meant; to the theologians who coined these terms and also in my own faithful life.
One of my favorite contemporary artists, Kelly Latimore, has created modern-day “icons” of religious figures, biblical characters, and unlikely saints. One of these images depicts the holy family on a dimly lit city street. Joseph and Mary both shiver within their modest, winter puffer coats and Mary holds a bundled baby on her hip. Also in the painting is social activist Dorothy Day, pointing the family out of the cold and into a Catholic Worker House. I love the creative mashup of this image; the contrast of recognizable biblical characters yet clothed in vivid contemporary details.
In the synoptics, we get a lot of details leading up to the birth of Christ. Matthew gives us genealogy. Mark accentuates the gospels with action and the adverb “suddenly.” Luke paints a vivid scene of those gathered at Jesus’ birth. But John’s gospel is different. More esoteric perhaps; philosophical. And in John 1 we glimpse the impulse of the entire incarnation: the Word became flesh and came to dwell among us. (John 1:14)
That flesh, or skin, or humanity is a scandal. That the immaterial would become material to reach us in our sinful state is the true gift of Christmas. And I can’t help but see it as “flesh” that understands not only the comfort of my family memories, but the complexity of human relationships and the pain of our imperfect, fallen condition. Jesus meets us there and he is clothed in the simplest of human context. He arrives to meet us as a poor Jewish baby, delivered en route to his stepfather’s hometown, in a storage facility meant for animals.
I tell all these patchwork stories because that’s what my Christmas memories look like. They are a montage of picturesque sentiment mixed with deep family woe. Woven in with my own family narrative are the biblical characters that lead up to the feast day of Christmas and the miracle of Christ’s humble birth. The gilded orbs above the saints’ heads who also dress in the trappings of their popular culture. This is Christmas. A tapestry of many threads.
Kendra Thompson is a wife, mother, and writer living in Northwest Iowa. Her work has appeared in Spectrum, Body Love for All, Poet’s Choice and These Interesting Times. Kendra recently self-published a short collection of sonnets called “A Crown of Devotion.” You can find more of her writing on her blog www.crylaughsnort.wordpress.com