Christmas for the numb.
Christmas is excessive. Not just in the stuff piled high, lugged home, and thrown out, but all of it: every John Lewis ad, every flickering candle, every wonky tinsel-haloed angel picking their nose through Away in a Manger, demands from us an emotional response. More than anything else Christmas is a time for indiscriminate feeling. I was (cheerfully) informed by a Police Sargeant that Christmas is one of the main times of the year for family murders; but even if an argument over a will doesn’t deteriorate into cousin-throttling over the mince pies, there are countless people in an impotent rage on Christmas day over a million tiny things.
This demand for emotional response is problematic and not particularly healthy in itself, but for anyone who has had to suffocate big feelings so successfully that they are emotionally numb, this festive onslaught can leave one feeling like an alien. Going through the motions but with no real connection - a child with its face pressed up against the glass, separated from the light and warmth.
To be numb is not to have no feelings, but to have too many. And a fear that if one was to acknowledge or engage with them, they would be unbearable: the pain of rejection, grief, confusion, anger, desire, love. There is a fear that these feelings would consume and destroy us, or those we loved. So our clever minds - protecting us - harden us over, creating armour, as though we were knights riding into battle. It is safer to feel numb, because it’s when the feeling comes back - that agonising pins and needles of warm blood flowing in icy veins - that you have to worry. It is a brave coping strategy, to be numb, to freeze, to survive - half alive, but alive nonetheless. But left too long these frozen bits of us die, and we do not live fully, because it is being able to feel a range of emotions that makes life rich and meaningful. And this is why God was made incarnate - to make us fully alive, to connect us to Him and to one another in love.
I think of the shepherds who after the Exile were so despised and excluded. Up in the hills they were seen to have so little value that they were apart from the general ordering that was happening within the census. I imagine them with their half frozen hands and feet coming into the cattle stall - the first to witness the Messiah, who would spend his life bringing the excluded into the love of God. Jeremiah describes this God like a stranger who stays one night only in a guest chamber. But it is this God who is also the Light and Warmth of the world, who offers the Shepherds and us a place where they and we can warm frozen hands. Frozen hands and hearts need, not extreme heat, but the gentle but steady warmth of another human being. We need a safe space in which to risk the excruciating return of sensation - to be able to look at those unbearable feelings in some gentle steady light. To have someone who loves us in our entirety and will not turn away, who will help us to bear those feelings if we can begin to lay them out in front of him - our own painful offering. He will stay with us, Emmanuel, as much in the bottom of a manger, as in the bottom of a boat on a stormy sea. “Remember, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Mtt 28:20)