Standard Deviations: The true meaning of Christmas? To love the unlovable
“The true meaning of Christmas.”
We’ll hear that phrase a lot this month. People encouraging us to celebrate the true meaning of Christmas, or complaining that we’ve lost the true meaning of Christmas, or simply praying that we’ll all remember — all together now — the true meaning of Christmas.
But as often as I’ve heard those five simple words, I’m not sure I understand exactly what they mean.
When I asked friends and family members what the true meaning of Christmas meant to them, most offered some version of the “Birth of Jesus” motif. And while that may be a part of it, it’s got to go a little deeper than that. Christmas isn’t just about the birth of a baby, but what that baby stood for, what that baby taught us — the universal truths that permeate this celebration.
Because if the true meaning of Christmas is only for those who believe in and celebrate that baby in a manger, the holiday seems a bit too exclusive for me.
So then, what do I think might be the true meaning of Christmas?
Just this: To love the unlovable.
We talk a lot about love at Christmas time; it’s a central theme of the holiday. And while it’s fairly easy to love those deserving of that love, the real challenge is finding a way to love those who seem to be unworthy of our love.
I spent part of the past week interviewing people who work with the homeless and low-income families in the Ogden area. During that time, I came across numerous examples of people who show love to those who, quite frankly, can sometimes seem fairly unlovable to me.
A large percentage of the homeless population is saddled with varying degrees of mental illness or substance abuse — often both. Their social skills are frequently lacking, their habits annoying. Sometimes, they even smell funny.
Judy Doud is director of the Ogden Rescue Mission. The shelter and soup kitchen has faithfully served Ogden’s most unlovable for a very long time.
The other day, Doud told me a story about the “day room” at their mission, which they open when the temperatures drop outside. It’s a place where the homeless can come in out of the bitter cold during the day, to watch TV, read or simply enjoy the warmth.
Doud says they’re happy to offer this day room, but it’s also led to frustrations. Last year, when the mission opened its day room, “all of a sudden we were getting clogs and jam-ups in the toilets and sinks,” she said. As it turns out, one or more homeless individuals were purposefully clogging up the toilets at the mission.
“It was definitely intentional,” Doud said. “They’d put socks, or anything they could get hold of, down the toilet. I mean, how could anybody get a fork down a sink?”
Doud had to have the lines cleaned out, to the tune of about $700. That’s $700 the mission could have better spent on services for the homeless.
“Here we are, trying to help people, and they do things like that,” Doud said. “It’s really frustrating.”
Still, Doud keeps on loving them.
Cindy Simone is constantly helping the homeless, too. The co-owner of the Kokomo Club on Historic 25th Street hosts homeless banquets twice a year and regularly gives homeless people food, clothing, personal hygiene items — just about anything a homeless person would need.
Except money. She never, ever gives them money.
Simone tells the story of a homeless man who asked her for some change once, and she told him she’d buy him a meal instead. She brought the food back and handed it to the man.
“And he turned around and sold it to someone else for a dollar, right there in front of me,” she says.
But Simone continues to love them.
I think people like Cindy Simone and Judy Doud have this whole Christmas thing figured out. They know its true meaning: Loving the unlovable.
In the 1992 western “Unforgiven,” Clint Eastwood’s William Munny character shoots Little Bill Daggett, played by Gene Hackman. As he lay dying, Little Bill says, “I don’t deserve this — to die like this. I was building a house.”
To which Munny replies, “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”
He’s right, you know. Good or bad, it’s never about what we deserve.
Those of us who celebrate a baby’s birth at this time of year ought to know we don’t deserve that gift, either. But we get it anyway. He loves us all, unlovable though we may be.
And that, I think, is the true meaning of Christmas.
Contact Mark Saal at 801-625-4272, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @Saalman. Like him on Facebook at facebook.com/SEMarkSaal.