There can be a terrible pressure to make everything appear right at Christmas. To suddenly make the days merry and bright. In fact, this pressure alone is enough to make the days a bit stressy and miserable. When the Coopers get together everything is far from all right, it’s pretty much all wrong. Relationships are splintering and there is a more than a little loneliness tucked away inside each of them. But saddened and disappointed by life and its unexpectedly tough experiences they meet together with the intention of somehow making things tolerable for ‘the holidays’. (With, as they say in movie-land, hilarious consequences.)
Eleanor is so desperate to appear sorted and stable that she begs Joe to come along to her family get-together and pretend to be her steady boyfriend, even though they only met an hour before. She can’t face going alone again.
I’m glad that the heart of the Biblical Christmas taps into reality. Characters in this real life epic find themselves hassled, under pressure and frightened. They are part of a narrative which is birthing good news – but in the telling Mary finds herself isolated and misunderstood, the shepherds are terrified, the wise men accidentally visit the wrong king and spark a catastrophe and Joe has to organise a family flight from death. We want our Christmas time to be full of peace on earth and goodwill, but like these first century heroes we find ourselves challenged and under pressure. We find ourselves part of a story which promises peace, but is shot through with turmoil. The Coopers wade through a mire of troubles and conflict before goodwill begins to rear its head.
Jesus understood this, coming from an average family living in an occupied country, he knew plenty about the savage ups and downs of life. I love the trappings and tinsel of this time of year, the puddings and presents, but at the end of the day Christmas has come for the trouble and strife in the world. Thirty years on from his birthday Jesus launched into a career announcing peace and goodwill – well aware that in doing so he was challenging the world-view of many and stirring up strife and ill-feeling amongst some.
As I sit writing this in a post-Christmas McDonalds I look at other drinkers and diners and wonder what this Galilean promise of peace and goodwill means to many of them. Their lives are most likely messy and frightening and disappointing in the way that the Coopers lives are. In the way that Mary and Joseph’s were too. If Christmas is only about songs, trees, black Fridays, chaotic nativity retellings, Bing Crosby and snow then it may not have much meaning at all. But if it’s about the offer of hope for a people who are squabbling and struggling, fearful and fraught, well then… it seems to me that is why Christmas is here again. Not to enforce us to be merry and bright, but precisely because our lives are not. As we go into the New Year we dare not leave Christmas behind. We need it. Every day. I do anyway.