The older I get, the more sentimental I become. Especially as Christmas. Three chords into “O Holy Night” and you’ll find me tearing up and sniffling like a fool. I can’t help it. Something about Christmas just does that to me.

Specific lines from my favorite Christmas songs get stuck in my throat and grab hold of me.

What makes these songs effective each Christmas season is their ability to call to mind the wonder and marvel of the moment when the God of eternity stepped into time. And that is why I love Christmas so much. Because this one night was a game changer.

But then a few days ago I came across this image 19th century American painter, Gari Melchers, created. It was his rendition of the nativity, and it moved me in a way these Christmas songs never have.

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This painting wasn’t about capturing the magic. It isn’t very effective in creating a sense of nostalgia. It doesn’t cause me to think of the unlikely intersection of heaven and earth and the choruses of angels. It just causes me to stop.

I can remember when I became a parent for the first time. I remember the hype, preparation and the countdown of days—a sort of advent as well—the waiting and anticipation.

And then the baby is born. And it isn’t that any of the stuff you anticipated is less true. It’s just that reality sets in. And the feeling of purpose you thought you would have as a parent is trumped by sheer exhaustion. And the moments of bonding and sentiment are replaced with an inexplicably crying child you can’t seem to console. And the magic of it all sort of loses its luster.

In hindsight you find the wonder again. But in the moment, you are just putting one foot in front of the other, waking up, going through the routine, going to sleep, and repeating.

This painting reminds me of that. Mary and Joseph didn’t have the words of poets to make their night in a barn meaningful. They didn’t have the perfect harmony to offer a bigger perspective on what this night might eventually mean.

They didn’t even have the shepherds yet.

They had each other—tired, uncertain, anxious, and alone.  And they had this baby. This beautiful baby, who they’d heard might one day save the world from it’s sin, but tonight just needed to sleep, to eat, and be changed.

Melcher’s painting reminds me, that the purpose, significance, and BIGNESS of Christmas can sometimes crowd out the reality of it. And what was true that night 2,000 years ago can be true for us today.

When I imagine making Christmas memories I think of all the profound things to do:
the living nativity.
the Operation Christmas Child box.
the Christmas parties and the Christmas pageants.

But I’m reminded the reality of Christmas tends to come in the more unhinged moments:
the sitting down to read the advent book—when we’ve missed the previous four nights.
the insatiable appetite for more stuff—the list of present requests growing and growing with little thought of how to give in return.
the spilled hot chocolate.
the burnt cookies.
the sugar high crazed personalities leading to more time-outs than I would prefer on Jesus’ birthday.

It isn’t meaningful all the time. It doesn’t feel purposeful every moment. But I doubt Mary and Joseph initially felt like that first night was meaningful or purposeful either. Chances are they just felt spent. Like me.

So this Christmas, in the fight to make it all matter, remember it doesn’t have to. Consider that the normalcy of the days can be just as impactful as the big stuff. When we are in it, it rarely feels like we’re accomplishing what we want, with all the chaos and unmet expectations. But give it some time. We likely won’t have a song written about us, but one day, we too may look back at these Christmases with wonder and with awe. 

Because as un-magical as the reality can seem in the moment, we never know the story it will end up telling in time.

(This article was originally published 12/23/15)