When Christmas Feels Like a Barren Desert

By Mark von Kampen

Back in the early 1990s, when I began serving as a youth and young adult minister, a young woman from the congregation told me that she was dreading the approaching Christmas season. All the glitter, all the songs of joy and peace, all the smiling faces—she just couldn’t get into it. “I hate Christmas,” she said.

I can’t remember how I responded to her—hopefully with compassion and empathy. I remember, however, having a difficult time grasping what she was talking about because personally I was so excited about the coming of Christmas that year.

It wasn’t until a few years later that I really came to have a deeper appreciation for where she had been coming from. Due to some very difficult circumstances in my own life, I remember several Advent seasons that I found to be pretty tough sledding.

Nothing ‘Evergreen’ About My Feelings

One year in particular I had decided there was no way I could bear going by myself to get a Christmas tree and unpack a bunch of ornaments that would just trigger painful memories of loss and disappointment. There was nothing “evergreen” about my feelings and spirit that year. Truth be told, I was feeling rather barren, bleak and dead inside. If I would have chosen a tree for that year, it would have been a dead, shriveled branch off of a deciduous tree—something with no green on it.

One night shortly before Christmas, a neighbour, who knew my difficult circumstances that year, showed up on my doorstep and said, “Hey Mark, I found the perfect tree for you.” Sure enough, it was a big blackish, gnarly looking branch that had broken off of a tree. It may have been the most thoughtful gift I’d ever gotten for Christmas—a dead branch.

I rummaged around in the basement for the Christmas tree stand, brought it to the living room and placed the tree in it. I even poured water in the stand. Ha. Take that, Christmas, I thought. Then I strung up a few white lights on it and sparsely hung a few little ornaments. It was perfect! The tree reflected, with honesty, the barrenness of my Christmas spirit that year. In its integrity there was even a strange kind of simple, elegant beauty. “Maybe I could ‘do’ Christmas after all,” I thought. “I just had to do it on my own terms.”

An Unexpected Part

If you think my tree was kind of odd, the strangest and most unexpected part of the story is that, as Christmas got closer, the tree began to develop buds, which every day grew larger and larger. I decided to keep watering that branch and by Christmas Eve that tree had little leaves! In the bleak mid-winter all of a sudden there was spring. That little tree had become a metaphor in more ways than one.

The prophet Isaiah foretold the coming of the Messiah using the image of a flowering shoot springing forth from a dead stump:

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of might,
the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord.
(Isaiah 11:1-2)

This image is captured beautifully in the German Christmas carol Es ist ein Ros entsprungen (Lo, how a rose e’re blooming). Isaiah also foretold that when the Messiah comes, even the desert will bloom:

The desert and the parched land will be glad;
the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom;
it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.
(Isaiah 35:1-2)

To What Does Isaiah Refer?

To what was Isaiah referring to when he talked about dead stumps or barren deserts? I suspect that most of us probably have some sense of this. We hear about hopelessness and despair on the news most every day—injustice, senseless violence, abuse, drugs, terrorism and so on.  We’ve all probably wondered from time to time about the human condition, and we may have found a barren wasteland or a lifeless stump as a fitting metaphor.

Some know this gnawing sense of emptiness or purposelessness more intimately. Some have lost loved ones. Some have experienced a significant decline in their health or the health of a loved one. Some know the pain that comes from a broken relationship. Some know the heartache caused by addictions and abuse.

Some of us have made unfortunate personal choices that have led us to places that seem hopeless. And some of us, through no choice or consequences of our own, have found ourselves in what feels like nothing less than a barren desert.

Hope Has Shown Its Face

The significance of Christmas is that God knows our struggles and our gnawing questions. God knows the pain and hopelessness in the world out there and God also knows the struggles and questions in our own lives.

The significance of Christmas is that, in Jesus, God has come to meet us in our human condition and show us a way forward. Into our despair, hope has shown its face. Into our questioning, an answer has emerged. Even from our barren stumps, the possibility of new life has emerged. Even from the barren wastelands in which we sometimes find ourselves, a flower has blossomed:

O Flower, whose fragrance tender
With sweetness fills the air,
Dispel with glorious splendour
The darkness everywhere;
Truely human, yet very God,
From Sin and death now save us,
And share our every load.
(Friedrich Layriz, trans. Theodore Baker)

Mark von Kampen

Mark von Kampen is a chaplain with Inter-Mennonite Chaplaincy Association (IMCA), which serves students, faculty and staff from the Menno Office located at the University of Manitoba. IMCA is partnership of the EMC, EMMC and MCM. Mark also serves as associate minster of worship at First Mennonite Church in Winnipeg.

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