‘Tis the season of make-believe and especially in the realm of Christmas letters. Through the door they come with the Christmas cards - letters fat with falsehood, exuding an air of superiority. It is the supercilious smile of English success as one by one, correspondents detail the perfection of their lives and cast an unwelcome shadow over already dark wintry days. It is not envy you feel at their happiness, but sheer disappointment that people you had thought of as friends have communicated nothing whatsoever of themselves. It is all externals and conformity, the sun ever shining on a catalogue of births and marriages, holidays and achievements. It produces the impression that anything real - from problems at work to sickness - would be construed as failure and so must not be shared.
Do we pretend back and try to make the best of a lousy year with our own synthetic letter or do we tell the truth? Some would say, Who cares - no one is honest in Christmas letters anyway. But that misses the point.
People who paint their lives to others in such ideal Christmas hues, so often tell the same fairy story to themselves the rest of the year. Everyone they meet is a new friend. Everything they do is a triumph. They are not only untouched by common miseries, but untouchable. They are immune to your problems. Tell them, when next they ask how things are, tell them about the death in the family, that your clients won’t settle the bills until New Year, that a criminal syndicate has ruined your town, that your neighbour was the victim of a hit and run but could herself be charged with dangerous driving. They will not really believe you. Life is not that bad. Society is not so wicked. They do not hear the details, but rather suspect that you have a bad attitude and attract trouble. They draw away from you because your observations on reality upset their ability to believe in a happy fantasy, that if you “do the right thing” you will receive all the blessings in the world. More karma than Christianity.
This is English Humanism in its Sunday - or rather its Christmas - Best, seducing men with the lie that the world is all right, that most people are jolly decent, that there is honey still for tea.
Life hurts. A lot. One Christmas card this year was annotated with the words, “I hope life is treating you well.” It came from a retired minister who should have known better, who should have known that all things that happen to us come by God’s permission, that God’s children are never tempted above that we are able to bear, but that it may be within God’s Providence to refine us in the fire.
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? (Romans 8.35)
Why did the Apostle Paul ask this, if Christians are entitled to lives of total domestic tranquility? Thankfully, he answered his own question. The solution is not the removal of all problems but the sure knowledge that even the worst event cannot separate us from the love of God.
Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8. 37-9)
Christmas letter writers may know and believe this. But they apply the principle in the wrong direction. To them, the woes that come to man are things that happen to other people and so they build their lives around an organised effort to support those who are in distress. They volunteer for children’s groups and women’s charities, help the elderly exercise and knit for Africa, donate blood and join in the 10K for the hospice. Through these avenues of formalised altruism they gain reassurance of their own good works towards those less fortunate than themselves. But they also put themselves in a category of “doing fine”. They do not expect trouble in their own lives or those of their friends and family. They do not live as though trouble will come or as though sin is any worse than a bad cold. They find it almost impossible to slip alongside a friend and just be quietly understanding because their good works are reserved for their inferiors, people in a box labelled “Needy”. They cannot adapt their condescension to kindness towards their equals. Neither can they trust their friends with their problems. They will not shed honest tears and ask others for help them. They are modern-saviours who make the world a better place and modern-saviours do not bleed. If problems come, then their reaction is a juvenile insistence on being happy in adversity. They do not allow you to express sympathy, love or concern, for they retain their superiority at all times. They still believe that they can make the world a better place in the midst of their problem and wonder why you doubt it.
That nothing can separate us from the love of Christ is good news. With this in our hearts, we can pray for the strength to endure new problems and face old battles. Whatever comes, we do not face it alone, because the Lord Jesus Christ is with us even unto death.
But we should still feel the problems as problems. Our hope in the resurrection of the saints does not lead us to enjoy death. The knowledge that the Lord will not forsake us does not remove our responsibility for conducting our affairs with decorum. Fire will burn us. And fear will plague us. Knowing ourselves in the midst of such turmoil should leave us with softened hearts to know how to weep with those who weep. Our comfort is that the worst things in life could happen to us and we would still be the Lord’s. It does not mean that we are naturally resilient at the prospect of persecution and the sword. It does not mean that we do not react physically and emotionally to confrontation.
We live in a dangerous and evil world. We are not above the battle or immune from it. We are sinners too and we are only more than conquerors through him that loved us. We are not super-charged people who can save others. We cannot even save ourselves. All is of grace and knowing this we should be humbled enough to be a little bit useful, weak enough to seek another’s strength. We need to hear the admonition of the Scriptures to Be strong and of a good courage because we are all cowards, unless the Lord makes us brave.
Christmas letters therefore throw us off balance. They put an illusion before our eyes and dare us not to believe it. Ironically, given the name of the season, it is the temptation towards Humanism - a love of the things of this life, belief that we can have heaven on earth, a longing for perfection where we have no right to any such expectation. The English adore the conformity of Christmas-time. They take comfort in the idea of ritual eating, light hanging, present opening and boozing. Just for once, so they imagine, everyone is peaceful and the brotherhood of man is achieved. We know it is not true. We never thought it was. And yet the idea that it ought to be is a seed of doubt, of dissatisfaction with the way that the Lord God has arranged for our salvation. It festers just below the surface of our thoughts, so we feel guilty if we “do” Christmas and worse if we don’t.
Christmas is a depressing time because it asks us to believe this lie. It takes us away from the plain reality of a world that needs the real Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ - needs him for the forgiveness of our sins, for hope after death, for hope even in life. And there is good news. It is simply this: nothing can separate us from the love of Christ, not even Christmas.