It was her first Christmas, or, perhaps more accurately, it was her sixth Christmas, but the first one we would celebrate as a family. Fifty-one days earlier, she had shown up on my front porch, a piece of pizza in one hand, a very small suitcase in the other and a foster care caseworker standing behind her, ushering her up my steps. She wanted to know where she would sleep, and was easily won over by warm chocolate chips cookies, fresh from the oven.
The fifty days that followed were full – enrolling in a new school, buying a new wardrobe, appointment after appointment, discovering which foods we both liked and which ones we didn’t, meeting her new extended family on Thanksgiving, and generally learning to live together. We both told lots of stories that Advent season – mine about family and traditions and presents under the tree, hers about Santa who left presents for everyone but her, and the family traditions that she watched from the outside.
In those fifty days, she became a well-loved child. My feelings for her rivaled the growing of the Grinch’s heart. She had her new grandfather twisted around her little finger practically before they met. The school and her foster agency ensured that she had Christmas gifts. My church hosted a party for her and gave enough toys and books to fill her entire new play room. Gifts and trinkets and well-wishes with her name on them appeared in my church office daily.
Her first Christmas Eve morning with my family dawned at my parents’ home, where we baked cookies, wrapped gifts and dressed her in her fancy dress with angel wings for the church’s Christmas pageant. Christmas Eve evening brought new pajamas, treats left for Santa, and a bedtime rendition of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, read from the same book I had loved as a child.
My dad is fond of saying that that Santa makes a huge mess when he dumps his sleigh over under the Christmas tree, and judging by the huge pile of presents, Santa must have employed his biggest sleigh to carry all those gifts. From the ripping of wrapping paper and the cries of delight when she found the perfect presents, to the drive to Christmas dinner with my extended family and then back home, she was clearly having a wonderful day. This was the Christmas she always dreamed of having.
Then bedtime arrived. Everything was quiet. We had eaten the last Christmas cookie, she had taken her bath, and it was time to cozy up in warm pajamas. Only then, did the abundance of the day begin to sink in.
In the quiet, it became too much–too much love, too many gifts given in joy, too many treats for her tiny tummy, too many people who embraced her as family, just too much. She cried. For an hour and a half she cried, because she just couldn’t take it all in. She couldn’t comprehend that she was so loved. She didn’t know how to reconcile her own feelings of being unwanted for so long with a family who wanted nothing more than to welcome her home.
It was a hard night, hard to see her tears, hard to hear her declarations that she didn’t deserve this, hard to watch her struggle with her old, unlovable identity when a new identity, rooted in abundant love, was within arm’s reach.
Yet, hers was the perfect response. As we hear that story of the tiny Christ child, who came because we’re not good enough, because we don’t deserve his love, because we don’t know who we are, maybe we, too, should be overwhelmed to the point of sobbing. Maybe we need to stand in the hard gap between the identity we put on ourselves and the love that Jesus offers. Maybe, instead of fearing that there will never be enough for us, we need to open our hands to the abundance of grace that comes on Christmas morning.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as a father’s only son, full of grace and truth…From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. John 1:14, 16
I do not know what this Christmas will bring. There will be gifts. There will be Christmas dinner and more pie than anyone should eat. There will be grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins with whom to play and to celebrate. How my daughter responds will wait to be seen. But I hope, as we take a moment to gaze at the little Jesus in the manger, she and I will hold onto the lessons of last Christmas, remembering the feeling that we have been given more than we deserve, that grace is bigger than we can imagine, that love is deeper than we can absorb, all because of the incarnation of that small God child, wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying the in manger.