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Chaplain's Column: More Than Tinsel

It's that time of the year again and I want to share some thoughts about Christmas.

Because police officers and the public they serve come from every possible religious perspective, chaplains are trained to work with an interfaith perspective. We would not normally address a particular holy day in a column such as this. But, of course, Christmas is not just a holy day for a particular religion; it has become a cultural event, a leading economic indicator, and (excuse my saying so) a pain in the posterior for officers!

There is nothing holy about the stampede of greed that takes place when the doors of retail stores open on Black Friday, with shoppers trampled at the door or physically fighting over popular sale items. There is nothing holy about burglars who steal presents from cars at the mall or from under Christmas trees in homes. There is nothing holy about the domestic violence that occurs when extended families get together around the holiday table and overindulge in alcohol and old grudges. The suicide rate goes up at holiday times, as people are caught between the storybook fantasy of perfect family holidays and the reality of their lives. All such holiday events may result in calls to 911, and become part of an officer's day, no matter what the officer's spiritual perspective may be.

If you are a cop who happens to observe Christmas as a holy day, your work may subject you to all that unholiness and also prevent you from attending worship at your own church or being home with your own family when you want to be - none of which helps make Christmas holy for you personally, or for your family. I am a Christian, myself, and I am dismayed by what Christmas has become.

There is something important underneath those layers of tinsel, greed, and manufactured sentiment; something I would like to try to share. If you don't have a choice about sharing the down side of what Christmas has become, you might as well hear the original point of it, to see if there is anything worth hanging onto in this mess! At the heart of Christmas is the story of the birth of a baby. As many cops know from professional experience, babies don’t wait, and they don't always come at convenient times.

The birth of Jesus of Nazareth is just such a story. The Roman emperor had called for a census, and required everyone to return to his hometown to be counted. This came at a bad time for Joseph and Mary. She was pregnant, the baby was due any time, and making a 60-mile journey through the hill country couldn't have been high on the list of things they wanted to be doing. But emperors don't wait much better than babies, so make the journey they did. And it happens that while they were in Joseph's hometown, the baby came.

They didn't even have a proper room to stay in. They had hoped to stay in the inn, but it was full. The inn-keeper let them stay in the stable. The fact it was used to house livestock makes me think it wasn't a very clean place to give birth, not a place one would normally choose, but - babies don't wait. So Jesus was born in the midst of the mess.

That's actually the point - it is pretty typical behavior for God, who regularly shows up in the middle of the messes of our lives. That's good news because those are the places we most need God, but we get squeamish about inviting God there sometimes. It is a good thought that God just enters into the mess whether invited or not.

If you are lucky enough this Christmas to have a peaceful, safe home, with something good to eat and share with someone special, it is not too difficult to feel oneself surrounded by God's love and protection. Such peaceful scenes are not the only places God will spend Christmas this year. Some of us are bereaved this Christmas, and will be acutely aware of an absence at the family table. Some of us are not in good health, and are wondering what the New Year is going to bring. Some of us are having trouble paying our bills. Some are having conflict at home, or are estranged from family. God will be present in these places, too, and in yet more challenging places than these - I suppose on December 26th, we will open the paper to read of a house fire or a fatal accident. There will be an article about an attack somewhere, perhaps in Afghanistan. It's the same stuff we read every day, but we'll feel even sadder than usual, because it will have happened at a time of celebration.

We don't celebrate because we are immune to tragedy for a day, because we are not. Tragedy finds us on December 25th just like it does every other day. The birth of the baby in the mess and stink of the stable reminds us that God comes into the mess of our lives, even when everything else about them stinks. God doesn't wait until we get our act together, but meets us where we are, as we are, even if that means God gets (his) hands dirty and (his) heart broken. Babies don't wait, and neither does God. This Christmas God will be present on the battlefield, in hospitals and nursing homes, and prowling the streets in patrol cars.

Just like every other day.

That, really, is what Christmas is about: the birth of God into the mess - our mess - where God loves us, helps us, and when need be, suffers with us.

You just know God must love us an awful lot, to go through all that with us.