Friday, December 24, 2010

On the outside, looking in

One of the most intensely dark Christmas stories that I have ever read is Hans Christian Anderson's story of The Little Match Girl. Touted as a children's story, it features a destitute little girl, bare-footed and shivering in the cold, afraid to return to her meager home because she has not sold any matches that day. All day long she has been on the outside, looking in at lives filled with warmth and laughter, Christmas trees, holiday feasts, loving families. With no place to go she curls up in a corner between some houses and lights a match to try to keep herself warm. Each match she lights pulls her into a vision of all that she dreams of, delights of warmth and comfort that vanish as the match burns out. Finally she sees a vision of her grandmother, and, desperate to keep that vision from vanishing she lights all of the matches at once. Her grandmother carries her off to heaven and in the morning people find the little girl's cold, dead body. Funny how that's not a story widely told to children anymore.

In a way, I have always identified a bit with that little match girl. Always on the outside, looking in at the warmth and laughter, never feeling that I belonged to that world. In vain I would light my feeble matches, trying to hold on to visions of belonging. Education. Career. Appearance. Family. If only it wouldn't burn out; if only I could REALLY enter in, I would finally belong somewhere. But they all burned out, each in their own way, never bringing me the warmth that I longed for.

I remember in particular one year during college. Home on Christmas break, the feeling of emptiness was overwhelming. On Christmas Eve I went for a walk under a star-lit sky, thinking that if I just tried hard enough I could capture some of the warmth of Christmas, some of the peace, some sense that I belonged in the universe. I knew the Christmas story, had been raised with it drilled into my head, but I didn't FEEL the Christmas story. The stars didn't hold any answers. No angels sang for me, no sudden a-ha! moment came to me. All I felt was alone, wandering under the sky. Forever on the outside, looking in at something I couldn't quite grasp. Inside, I was as cold and dead as that little match girl.

Flash forward many years. Many midnight wanderings on darkened streets that never led me anywhere. Many matches lit and burned out. And now I know...I wasn't the only one on the outside. I'm not alone. We are ALL the little match girl, all longing for something that we could never reach on our own.

Photo by Steve Evans
And so, God came. Because we could not open the door to go in, God opened the door and stepped out in the darkness and the cold. God came to us. As we huddled in our corners he came, and he laid the gift of a baby at our cold and bloodied feet. A baby who would suffer through the same cold and despair that we live in. A child who would know the things that pain our hearts. A man who would take all of those hurts and all of those longings and in one final moment would experience the ultimate knowledge of being on the outside, being forsaken. And in that moment the door would be flung open for all eternity, welcoming us into HIS warmth.

Immanuel. God with us. God with us in the darkness, God with us in the light. God entering our world. God breaking through. Immanuel. God with us. And I am no longer on the outside, looking in.

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