(The Real Stories series will continue on Saturday with the final installment.)
I love the holiday season. I love how the weather gets cold, and the sky turns grey, and the wind beats the house and makes hot cocoa a necessity. It's so magical. Anything could happen. You could walk outside and find yourself in another world, another adventure. Narnia starts bleeding into the real world.
At the same time, the world feels safe and intimate. During the holidays, people give without expecting to receive. They visit each other and catch up with old friends who feel like family. They bake more. They stop caring about fat intake and eat more pie. They stop worrying for a little while about catching up on life or getting things done. Everything pauses, and we take a deep, deep breath. Life is frozen into a happy photograph for ten seconds.
I wish it could be like this always. I wish every day of the year we could sit around the table feeling warm, eating a giant bird, drinking cider, and realizing what we're really thankful for. I don't take time often enough to remember what I have. The days after we give thanks are filled with a retail flurry that reminds me of all the thinks I don't have, and I'm back to my usual bustle, trying to get ahead so I can get that thing I don't have yet.
But on Thanksgiving, for one day each year, I remember what's already here, and I am grateful.
This year I've been contemplating what else Thanksgiving means: freedom. Thanksgiving is the historical celebration of a religious pilgrimage. A collection of cast-outs fled persecution and law to a place where they were free to be who they wanted, to worship as they wanted, and to rule themselves as they wanted. One winter, they got up to celebrate that they had at last found it. They had found freedom: freedom of religion and freedom of identity. And they rejoiced.
This Thanksgiving, I want to give thanks for that freedom. They lay the foundation for a country where those freedoms are still largely available, and I eat pie to their memory because without them, I wouldn't be here.
And yet. I can't help remembering the people who aren't free: the people enslaved in this very country, forced to labor for someone else's profit, having no control over where they go or what they do with any given hour. Are they giving thanks this November? I can't help remembering that there are women and children in my city who are forced to give sex for someone else to get money out of them. They will not have apple cider on Thanksgiving day; they will be servicing people who are using them. They are not free. They do not have what I have to be thankful for.
I can't help but remember also that there are people in my country who aren't free from judgment. Though we claim freedom, our love still comes at a price. You can't be who you want to be or say what you'd like to say without people weighing you. Gay, hippie, food stamps user, Republican, even the homeless--whatever it is, people judge your value based on your identity, and you're not free to decide who you want to be without losing friendships and being shunned or shouted at.
How is this freedom?
We created a legal system that gives us many rights and privileges. We allow people to do what they want to do. But some of them want to do some terrible things. Though freedom used rightly is beautiful, there is a horrible side to what people will use it for, from prejudice to slavery. In this country, the two are painfully intertwined.
I want to be thankful for the freedom I do have, but I also have to beg for more. I want liberty and love to be absolute. I am grateful for what I have, but I am also discontent. I am upset with the way our systems exclude and ignore. I am angry that there are people living in terrible darkness and how we ignore their chains and refuse to do more than move a click of a finger and a few dollars to set them free. Their freedom needs to be a top priority if we are truly living in the Thanksgiving spirit and walking in the footsteps of our forbears.
I therefore think it's right that Christmas is the holiday that follows fast on Thanksgiving's heels. Christmas is the season where a new world order is declared and a new love starts taking over. Where we see that the long midnight will soon be over. Christmas means hope. Christmas means rescue. It means restoration. It means a time where joy can come to the whole world because the captives will be set free and the shunned will be welcomed in.
I need Christmas. Not in its gift-giving, tree-decorating, fireside smugness. That gives me joy, but it doesn't give joy to anyone else, any on the outside looking in. I need Christmas in what it truly is. Two-thousand-something years ago, Christmas meant that awful beings of light stood up and terrified the countryside with their triumphant songs: Peace. Goodwill. Freedom. Love. Like you've never known before. You have no idea what's coming.
The story of Jesus is terrifying. It's captivating. It's beauty doesn't come from warm-fuzzies, but from the stark, naked truths that rip away all our security and dash our happy little expectations to pieces. The Christmas story goes against convention. It's daring. It's unlawful. Dirty and gritty and bloody. The real story of Christmas involves death and struggle and war. Because that's what happens when chains are broken and prisoners walk free.
Jesus opens doors we locked up. It is painful. I have prejudices. I have fears. When we are forced to see people in all their magnificence, we will be torn from our safe little houses of solid belief into a world we don't recognize and can't quantify. When slaves are set free, we will see people we have never seen before, we will have to pay the actual price of what we buy, and things won't be cheap because work will get its due. This is the work that Jesus does. Christmas brought a start to something that will shake us all upside down.
All our sanctimonious little ways of helping the environment and celebrating fair trade coffee will seem terribly insignificant. We will fade into the background. We will no longer be the main characters on our little stages. We who were the first in everything will suddenly come last, small, unimportant. We will be surrounded by people wearing glorious stories, and we ourselves will be just as naked, clothed in nothing but what we have done and believed. Are our stories enough to clothe us?
A truly great story involves loss. It involves sacrifice. All the good plots of all the good stories follow the same arc: a character has lost something and must overcome difficulties to obtain it. Some freedoms have been lost. The cost of finding freedom will great. Yet it is the terribly beautiful thing we have been longing for all our lives. If true love is sacrifice, then this is what it's about. This could be our story.
Because of Christmas, one day all chains will be broken and every person will be welcomed into the family. Everyone will sit around one big table together eating pie and there will be more than enough for everyone. I promise you. We will be free to be who we are made to be, no one holding us back, no one judging, no one enslaving, everyone free. You will be in my family. There will be no chains or bars or thoughts that keep us from knowing and loving one another. Jesus was a homeless, barefoot, earth-loving hippie who hung out with everyone from black suits to prostitutes. We're going to have to learn to do things his way, and he will make sure all the walls keeping people out and keeping people trapped are torn down.
Thank God for Christmas. Christmas gives me hope for many Thanksgivings yet to come.
And until then? What do I make of the gap between Thanksgiving now and the future Christmas feast we'll have when the long labor is over and the new way of life is delivered? Simply said, the interstice is filled when people like you and me go out of our way to love our neighbor. No matter who they are or how they're different. No matter what they believe or do. When we fight for their rights and when we love the person next to us, we are bringing Christmas one day closer into Thanksgiving.
I think that is what I will give thanks for: the people who have loved me--loved me as I am and loved me into a better me. They have changed the world by loving me. I give thanks for them and pray that the Christmas spirit gives birth in me to the ability to see love not as a contract, but as a gift. I pray that the love and joy of the holiday season inspire me with the courage to give love freely, without embarrassment or fear or arrogance or entitlement. To love, even, the ones who don't love me back.
We love, after all, because He first loved us. Why should it not be any different with my neighbor? Perhaps he can't love me until I love him. Let everyone join the Thanksgiving table; let everyone eat apple pie. And my neighbor eating pie with me? He's not the only one who is being set free.
What does freedom mean for you? Offer it to someone else this year, even someone who isn't doing the same for you.