If you’ve been counting, Reader, you’ll have noticed that tomorrow is Christmas but I’ve only posted three weeks of Advent so far. Since there are only the three Fridays in Advent this year (and I’ll also not be near a computer this coming Friday), I figured I’d sneak the last entry in on this grand and chilly Christmas Eve.
I know, I know, I’ll Be Home for Christmas is not a churchy carol at all. It has nothing to do with this Jesus about to plunk into our lives. But I don’t know that it shouldn’t be one of the Advent songs—it is, after all, about waiting, and longing, and hoping, and traveling.
My first real connection to this song was my sophomore year of college. I was working as an assistant stage manager on a production that ran through Christmas Eve, which meant not only that I was working on what had previously been a holiday in my mind but also that I was away from my home. Now, here’s the thing—“home” is a complicated concept for me, as I grew up in a split family whose various houses changed several times. And I think you’ve picked up, Reader, I’m not terribly fond of my family. So “home” has never really meant much to me in the way that it does to Hallmark cards and Hobby Lobby plaques. My heart was in several different places, there was no one house I identified as “mine,” and my family was scattered, so “home” was kind of a nebulous concept.”
But that Christmas Eve, as I stood backstage with a handful of chains waiting for my cue line to introduce Jacob Marley’s sound effect, I missed home. It wasn’t that I missed my family, or a house. I missed the concept of home, the place where there are traditions and familiarity and a deep, deep sense of belonging somewhere. It was the first time I ever truly understood what it meant to stand outside of that part of home that isn’t all that easily defined because absolutely none of it is concrete. I remember humming this song to myself as we tore down the set; please have snow, I thought, as there hadn’t been any yet, and I definitely dream of white Christmases.
Fast forward to now, when I have an apartment of my own that is home in a way no other place has ever really been. I have a family built of my congregation, with all the brothers and sisters and mothers and grandfathers and nephews and nieces and cousins I could possibly stand, some of whom I like and others not so much. I gather with them on Christmas Eve—tonight—and we celebrate our Father being born oh so very long ago.
Being a newborn, I’m not sure that Jesus would have had much in the way of homesickness, but Mary and Joseph? They were told by a rather insulting census demand that they had to pack up and trek across Israel from Nazareth to Bethlehem—about a 10-day hike, ish. Of course, everybody else had to do the same, so Bethlehem, filled with David’s descendents, had a sudden population boom. Mary in all her rotund pregnancy ended up delivering not only in a strange town without any of her kinfolk to help out or soothe her worries, but in essentially a stable; not the most sanitary or comfortable of places, even by the standards of 2,000 years ago. And Joseph? He was along for a ride he didn’t start, in the town of his family but maybe not necessarily his stomping grounds, with a wife going through the less-than-delicate procedures of delivering a baby that wasn’t his.
To think of going home for Christmas is something that the parents of Jesus didn’t get to do that year. Jesus Himself grew up in Egypt and Nazareth, far from His “hometown” of Bethlehem. He spent a good deal of His life (and many Christmas Eves/birthdays) not being in any real sense at “home.”
The song speaks of a homesickness sung slow and deep, the heart’s quiet whisper of a place where you know what comes next, where things are beautiful because the love built into them wraps you up cozy and warm. But the piercing part of the song, beyond the hope of it, is the acknowledgement that it doesn’t always happen. “I’ll be home for Christmas—if only in my dreams.” Sometimes, home isn’t a place you can go. Sometimes, there’s a government census. Sometimes there’s a show you have to work. Sometimes there’s a war you have to fight, or an illness that keeps you in the hospital, or just a lack of home to begin with due to money or divorce or natural disaster or human cruelty. Home becomes, then, a place in your dreams, a place that you return for Christmas or whatever other holy-day that gives you that dangerously powerful thing called hope and allows you to believe this stable on the outskirts of an unfamiliar town is not a permanent dwelling for you.
I hope, Reader, that you find a home for Christmas. I hope that you allow yourself to be a home for someone else, a place of safety and love that ignores the cattle lowing in the background to rejoice in new life. And I wish you a very merry Christmas, from my home to yours.
And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:1-7, NKJV)