Christmas Eve at my neighborhood church is a holiday finish line that I usually cross like a long-distance runner, using my last burst of energy to complete the race.
The evening closes a long day of cooking, cleaning and company, so I sit in the pew feeling that I’ve got little else to give.
Maybe exhaustion isn’t the best way to make a good Christmas, but at the very least, it breaks down my defenses. As the worship opens with “Oh Come, All Ye Faithful,” a lump rises in my throat each year, and my eyes mist from an emotion I can’t quite name.
“Faithful,” I’ve found, is a good hymn for tired singers. There aren’t many high notes, and the melody has a slow but steady momentum that carries Christmas forward, nudging me forward, too.
Maybe what I’m feeling as I stand to join the chorus on Christmas Eve is a useful sense of how small I am. My flagging feet remind me that I’m not as smart or strong or invincible as I’d like to think.
Which is why, as a mere mortal, I hunger for what Christmas offers — a connection to something bigger, brighter and more enduring than my modest, middle-aged life.
I am not, I know, the first tired pilgrim to seek solace at a manger. The first Christmas, as the story goes, was born in exhaustion, too, with a cast that included two road-weary parents and some shepherds working the late shift.
Dickens extended the theme of yuletide fatigue in “A Christmas Carol,” his tale of an elderly miser visited by nighttime ghosts. The wee hours timing of Scrooge’s adventure is part of its inner logic. The old man reforms, one gathers, because he’s simply too bleary-eyed to resist.
Christmas comes conveniently each December, when the year itself is limping on its last legs. The world wears its weary winter face, and the tiredness of the times seems especially vivid right now, as the headlines remind us of what we’ve carried in our hearts and minds the past 12 months.
The news this year, so bloody and brutal, can make humanity at large seem like a worn-out thing, something spent by the rigors of its hubris and excess.
But maybe a part of you has to feel a little empty to fully receive what Christmas gives.
It will, I guess, be the same this Christmas Eve as in all the others of recent memory.
I’ll sit in my congregation, suppressing a yawn and the urge to nod off, when the pipe organ will sound its familiar summons to all the faithful, here and around the world, in that moment and for all time.
And then somehow, the fog of the season’s hurry and worry will lift, and I will be left there in the bright clearing of another Christmas — joyful, even triumphant.
Follow Danny Heitman on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.