My parents divorced about eight years ago. That first Christmas was miserable. Haunted by memories of what was, haunted by expectations of what might have been, the ghosts of Christmas have returned every year since, not as ethereal and divine substances but as heavy and oppressive presences. I don’t remember paying much attention to Christmas mangers when I was younger (although we had one in our home), but I can no longer remember a time when iconography of the Holy Family felt like anything other than a kind of judgment. A part of me hates Christmas; a part of me curses Christmas — and the infant Christ just lays there and stares. I write with the exhaustion that futility alone knows all too well.

My brother shot himself this past March. It was wholly unexpected; he was one week shy of his three-month anniversary. He left no note. A broken home can be articulated with broken dreams, but suicide is a pain so sharp and unexpected that words cannot encompass it. This is especially true for me, because he and I were effectively estranged. Words unsaid are words unheard; they are verdicts passed upon the living. Candles illumine enclosed spaces, but not the darkness outside. Hymnody swells and resounds, but its crescendos also fade. What else can Christmas be but a long lamentation echoing through the years?

For some reason, I have been reflecting recently on the religious devotion of my youth. In my late teens and early twenties, I cultivated a practice of very intense prayer; raised charismatic but deeply influenced by my own readings in Hasidic Judaism, I longed to be among those tzaddikim who intercede for the world. I prayed alone at night in the dark of my room for friends, family, and those I barely knew. Raised without the language of sacraments, I took my tears as outward signs of mystical union and imminent redemption.

Now, I cannot remember the last time I interceded for anyone. It has certainly been many years. At present, I find that when the heart is hollow, the body still knows how to pray; lips form words and hands make gestures at once familiar and foreign. It is the uncomfortable but vividly real space of faith seeking harmony — not understanding, just some kind of balance. I do not expect, however, that Christmas will bring resolution this year. It hasn’t in the past. Each holiday has simply left me bereft of what I once knew.

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But as I now find myself at the beginning of Advent, Santa Claus has never appeared more different than the Christ child. The former comes ermine-lined and warm; the latter shivering cold. Santa is longed for and welcomed, but the child rejected and unknown. As sentimental and saccharine as Jesus and his blessed mother are made to appear, they seem largely incapable of embodying the sickening materialism that Santa both inspires and bestows. Here amidst history, there is neither peace on earth nor good will towards men. Here there is failure, guilt, and regret: an unholy trinity living in perichoretic mockery. Who is Santa to draw near in a life such as this?

If the figurine in the manger is mute, at least he is not false. His is a place close to truth: a place to rage and a place to wait.

About The Author

Dr. Benjamin Guyer is a lecturer in the department of history and philosophy at the University of Tennessee at Martin. With Dr. Paul Avis, he is the editor of The Lambeth Conference: Theology, History, Polity and Purpose (Bloomsbury, 2017).

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