When I was a child, or more like a pre-teen, what you wore back to school the day back from Christmas break was critical to your social standing.
Those were lean years for our family, having been abandoned by our father and living in reduced economic circumstances. No longer did we celebrate Christmases with brightly-lit, 15-foot trees and piles and piles of presents around the base. My dad decided a traditional marriage was too boring for him and moved out to live with his girlfriend. We also moved out because he was unwilling to provide for that household any longer. My mother went to work, we became latch-key kids, and our new home required me to share a bedroom with my little brother. Christmastime, in particular, called for severe belt-tightening measures, although mom did her best to make the season special in some way or another for us, like coming up with free tickets to symphony concerts or taking us on a trip around town to look at the lights.
Leanness comes in many forms, not just material. We can all feel this way sometimes even if life looks full and rich and abundant on the outside. There can be leanness in confidence about identity or value or worth. There can be leanness in health or security about the future. There can be leanness in numbers at the table if we are missing loved ones who have left us through death, or departure, or anger, or neglect.
Most of us, in honesty, could say we want those leannesses to become fat and full in some way, somehow. Sometimes we bank everything on the season’s dizzying whirl of activities to keep us feeling bright and merry.
Sometimes we wait to see if gifts will make up for the leanness, and Christmas takes on a tarnished, tacky glint. Sometimes we watch the faces of loved ones to see if we have pleased them. And the bright faces delight and cheer us, until they are distracted by the next latest novelty.
There is a leanness a lot of us are feeling this year. The gurus of love languages would say we’re all depleted in the expressions of love we yearn for: zoom meetings and social distancing can’t satisfy our need for quality time together, physical touch, acts of service, receiving gifts, or hearing words of affirmation.
For a few years, when my dad was challenging the obligation to continue to provide for his family of college students and teenagers, we had a family agreement that we would not exchange gifts. Believe it or not, this was not as difficult for us kids as you might expect—at least on the receiving end. But how could we go through Christmas and not give a gift to our mom? We agreed we would cheat on the deal for the sake of a gift for her, and when she cried and fussed, it made us feel all the more magnanimous.
Very little else changed significantly. We pulled out all the boxes and decorated a tree bought a day or two before Christmas Eve when the lots were dropping prices in order to sell. Heirloom ornaments were hung alongside construction paper stars, and one year my mom made ornaments out of old Christmas cards. These hours were the best that our family spent together that I remember in all my childhood. Something about the leanness in material gifts called forth a fatness in other gifts—laughter, goodwill, peace, contentment—that won over and silenced even sibling rivalry and teen-aged bickering. What sticks with me are images of my brothers’ faces lit up by the lights of the tree as we read stories aloud on Christmas Eve, happy sounds during card games around the dining room table after dinner, and always music.
I suppose you’re catching on to what I eventually discovered. My Christmas memories are not that lean at all! It was all in the perspective, and it was that early exercise in seeing past the material that granted me a preview of God’s economy of abundance and blessing.
What makes for leanness could be different for us all. What we make of the leanness makes all the difference in the world. Paul says, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content” (Philippians 4:11) in a follow-up to his exhortation to joy:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. (4:4-9)
I know Christmas can bring turmoil and tension, sorrow and pain. I know a pair of sisters who spent years bickering over inheritances and handling of estates—the battling went on so long that the property disintegrated and there was nothing left when the older of the two ended up being the caretaker for the cancer-stricken younger. I know a grandmother welcoming a second new grandbaby in the new year, and wishing she could also celebrate a daughter’s wedding. I know of a mother whose heart aches because the faith professions her children have made are not evident in the unkindness and arrogance and selfishness of their lives.
This is why Jesus came. Because even if all the puzzle pieces fit together, the picture it creates still isn’t perfect for all the creases of lines that run through it. We can attempt to fix things ourselves—replacing Christ with other idols, closing off our hearts to hurts and stings—but the attempts will fail. Our hearts must be set on Christ and the things above. Everything else of this life will disintegrate under the corrupting air of the world, like the disputed property of those sisters, like the deterioration of relationships. (Matthew 6:19-20)
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever beliees in me shall never thirst.” (John 6:35)
Lean into Jesus this Christmas and always, and you will never know leanness again. Hallelujah!