Last year my husband and I celebrated our first Christmas with our infant daughter. She couldn’t understand the holiday, of course, but that didn’t stop us from discussing Advent calendars, wreaths, and Jesse Trees in depth, continuing a friendly argument about Santa Claus that has been going on since our engagement.
Citing our childhood experiences as rationale, we hashed out the significance of the Incarnation in the form of felt, cardboard calendars filled with chocolate, and a fat man driven around by reindeer.
Christmas in my youth meant festive cooking and fellowship. My mom made Greek kourabiedes, baklava, and pecan pie with nuts from my grandparents’ trees. My dad roasted beef or pork, carefully basting it with the au jus so that it melted on our tongues.
We never ate alone. Our guests ranged from Chinese engineering students, elderly couples without family, to lonely conspiracy theorists. Every year my parents took a census of the lonely and invited tablefuls to eat with us.
But one year we had only a single guest at our table. I’ll call him Jim.
A registered sex offender just released from prison, Jim had approached the elders of our church a few months before the holiday and asked permission to worship with us.
It was granted, but in spite of his honesty about his record, I can’t say that our congregation welcomed him with open arms. Still, Jim met with us for several years, arriving quietly and sitting in the back.
Each week after the service, Jim asked to play the sanctuary piano and did so beautifully. But if a child approached he would stop abruptly, pick up his Bible, nod a quick goodbye, and leave.
At home from college during the summer I was accustomed to nodding in return, but not expected to do more given Jim’s history. Thus I was ill prepared for my mom’s announcement as we made arrangements for me to return home again at Christmas.
“Jim is coming to Christmas dinner.”
I considered my reply carefully, and would’ve been ashamed to ask it in any other circumstance.
“Can’t someone else take him?”
“Everyone else has young children,” was her reply.
It’s not that I was afraid. My two brothers and I were grown—the youngest a six-foot tall Marine. Jim seemed weak and nervous most of the time, but my parents had realized that our hospitality was the most appropriate available.
I consented, but it wouldn’t feel like Christmas with Jim.
I tried to imagine it all: decorated sugar cookies, angels singing Glory to God in the highest, my Mom and Dad’s combined culinary expertise, a beautiful tree, and a child molester.
The refrain, One of these things is not like the others, came to mind.
But Jim came, and I sat next to him at the table. I remember struggling to make conversation. Desperate, I brought up the weather. We lived in West Texas where every day is sunny and windy.
It was a quiet meal.
Finally, after my mom’s pecan pie and baklava my family accompanied Jim to the door, perhaps hoping to push him out. We smiled nervously, and he was gracious.
“Everything was delicious,” he said. “Merry Christmas.”
Then he walked down our sidewalk alone. We watched anxiously as he attempted to start his blue gray sedan several times without success, and when the engine finally turned over I was momentarily relieved. I had feared he might be stranded with us through the night.
But my relief didn’t last.
We closed the door and the five of us stood in the foyer in silence: Christmas had been ruined.
We had wanted the holiday to be special, but instead we were reminded of sin in the world. Even worse—we knew our own guilt. Despite Jim’s best efforts, we could not really love him through our revulsion. We could offer a meal and a few hours in our home, but that was all.
I know what Christmas means, but it’s a story I’ve heard so many times that I can’t feel its power.
Becoming a parent has helped—at least now I understand the humility of God being born vaginally amidst blood and goo and handed helpless into arms; though it’s hard for me to comprehend that baby as my Savior in any real sense.
It’s easy, however, to want to create Christmas for my daughter, and now on our second year I thought I had figured out my strategy.
I bought her a Fisher Price nativity and she loved it. But then I realized that my toddler can mouth baby Jesus and throw Mary and Joseph about the house.
Even my best efforts at expressing the miracle are sacrilegious and wrong.
And I remembered Jim.
The truth is, I want Christmas to be about cookies and twinkling lights. I want the miracle of a baby without the gore. I want to pretend that I don’t really need that child and that people like Jim can’t be redeemed.
And yet after giving birth I should know better; the pushing, tearing, and bleeding are wiped clean after that baby is handed into your arms.
Jim’s guilt and shame didn’t ruin Christmas; it was my own guilt and shame, my failure to truly understand grace.
I’m not ready to open my table to convicts. I don’t know how I’ll ultimately show my daughter the fleshy miracle of the Incarnation. For now we’ll play with the Fisher Price set, sacrilegious though it may be.
Perhaps while she drools on the plastic baby Jesus, I’ll grasp that Christ’s table is deeper and wider than any tear.
Merry Christmas, Jim.
This post originally appeared at Good Letters on December 12, 2012.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.