This Christmas didn't look like I expected.
But does Christmas ever, really?
We go into the season of Advent with expectations. With our own personalized versions of sugarplums dancing in our heads. We dream of a Christmas with sugar-crusted cookies and chocolate dipped pretzels. Of our children piled on hand-made quilts, listening intently to the reading of the Gospel stories every night. Of pictures with Santa and Pinterest inspired goodie-bags for the neighbors and a Pottery-Barn-Catalog-worthy home. We dream of carols and candy canes and presents. Joy and peace and holiday bliss.
All wrapped up with a shiny silver bow.
We want it every year, though we know in all reality, our Christmas looks more like the Before than the After.
Because the After isn't really real. It becomes real in our heads because we only see what we don't have, only envision the what-if's that aren't and never will be because they're just not. But instead of accepting what is and turning our Before into a beautiful package to open, we strive and perform and focus on the After. The unreachable, unrealistic, unfulfilling After. The kind of After that makes us stretch and long and ache when the answer is right there in the manger the entire time, totally in reach, completely in hand, 100% ours for the taking - and the keeping. And the sharing.
Jesus came for our messy Before's. To redeem them and restore them and mold them. HE and HE alone is our perfect After.
I knew my Christmas wasn't going to look like a catalog, this year especially. This year, my first Christmas being separated, was spent largely focusing on simply not thinking. Forget holiday bliss. How about holiday survival? That was my goal. My Before wasn't just messy or busy or wearisome, it was downright cut-throat. Some days, literal knives would have offered less hurt.
But there were glimpses of After's sprinkled throughout my Advent, like powdered sugar on my mom's famous teacake cookies...
Watching my five year old stand unprompted in the driveway, her faith-filled gaze fixed on Heaven, and sing Christmas carols to Jesus.
Hearing the voice of my cousin-in-law as he looked me in the eye and told me what an amazing mom I was and how proud he was of me.
Working a puzzle with another cousin, who understands a broken heart, and not needing to speak because solving the pieces in front of us was helping solve a little piece of the hurt inside us.
Seeing the joy on the face of my daughter as she opened a gift she'd always wanted.
Hearing the laughter of my niece and basking in the snuggles of my nephew.
Tearing up that my daughter not only made sure I had gifts to open Christmas morning with her, but hearing her insist I take the next turn when she still had several to open herself.
Sparkling Christmas lights both on my tree and outside my house that were helped hung by multiple people who love me.
Enjoying apple cider with caramel and whipped cream from Starbucks.
Listening to my daughter sing a Christmas song she learned at school for my entire family, despite the fact she was scared to death to do so. She's learning courage, like her mama, learning that bravery isn't the absence of fear, it's the pressing forward in the thickening shadows of it all.
This Christmas, it could have been easy to bask in the what-ifs and the what-was and the what-will be? To let the doubts and fears and regrets and throbbing pains dictate my holiday, steal its joy like the Grinch stole the Who's feast, let the hurt strangle me from the inside out.
But Jesus...I celebrated Him as a baby born but this holiday He somehow showed up more like the warrior who upset the money-changers in the temple and the gentle Shepherd leading this lamb by name, all wrapped up in one amazing Gift that I can open every. single. day.
This Christmas, Jesus reminded me that although things are different, so very different, they're actually better in many ways - one way being that this Christmas, I can rest assured and be secure in the fact that the people in my life now who love me, TRULY love me. And that number isn't few.
There's more candy than coal at the end of the day, now, despite it all. My stocking is full and my tree is lit and the gifts are piled high, and that's not a Christmas miracle, that's a daily miracle, one that I'm taking with me throughout each day of 2014.