A Theology of Ugly Sweaters

“Home Alone” was definitely one of the iconic holiday movies from my generation, although it wasn’t really a major thing in my house growing up. Funny what you watch as a kid that establishes itself as entirely normal in your subconscious, isn’t it? The actor who played the dad is now forever typecast in my mind as a frumpy dad wearing an ugly sweater, and so when I see him in other movies, I giggle inwardly because I truly assume that when he takes off his jacket, that weird sweater situation will rear its ugly head head yet again.

(Side note: I recently rewatched this movie for the first time in a few decades and can’t remember why I was so convinced of this ugly sweater connection. Maybe it was a different movie. Oh well. I have a theme going, so we are going to stick with what my childhood brain concocted.)

In a pinnacle of postmodern thought (brought to you by the people who thought Shrek was a beautiful love story. Spoiler alert: isn’t.), the powers that be have figured out our affectionate nostalgia for the ugly sweaters that lurk inexcusably in our subconscious and now, you can actually buy, on purpose, entire lines of ugly Christmas sweater merchandise. Cookie decorating kits cut into shapeless sweaters, huge furry monstrosities covered in battery operated lights, pom-poms, tassels and goodness knows what that you are, presumably, supposed to both purchase and wear (unless you are literally the meanest White Elephant gift giver on the planet, and even if you are, might I point out that you have kind of missed the point? White Elephant is supposed to be a lame recycled gift. Unless you are my Superior Nephew, who I now must brag about, because his brilliance achieved new heights when, back in his high school years, he attended a White Elephant gift exchange and brought a bag of Lindor truffles, the round kind, each individually wrapped in shiny foil… it was the gift that absolutely everyone wanted, and no one suspected until it was far too late that he had painstakingly unwrapped each truffle and replaced them with brussel sprouts. An entire bag full of them. I have never been prouder of the old flesh and blood).

The ugly sweater movement baffles me. You know that wildly popular book about love languages? I have learned to receive pretty much anything as love, which deserves its own blog post, but gifts are the gimme love language for me. You could pick up a rock from the driveway and if you wrapped it in pretty paper, I’d probably plotz. And to me, Christmas in particular should look sparkling and twinkly. The gifts should all be fairly useless and given simply because they are pretty and shiny. I love just looking at the holiday gift section on Anthropologie’s website, because it is precisely what I imagine a perfect pile of gifts under a Christmas morning tree would look like.

Ironically, it isn’t what it has ever looked like, and in recent years, it is not even uncommon for me to not receive a gift at all. Again, its own blog post. But as a lover of all things sparkly, especially at Christmastime, my temptation when I see these ugly Christmas sweaters is to indulge in an unattractive cross between a snort and a hair toss (which is no small feat when your hair is as short as mine. Incidentally, how do you make a fauxhawk stand upright, anyway? Asking for a friend). But as I pause to ease the kink from my neck (hair tossing is for the young, which I demonstrably ain’t anymore), I wonder if I am missing something that I need to see.

It is probably too trite to simply point out that my life, and presumably yours, does not look like the Anthropologie Christmas gift page, full of glowing candles and sparkling necklaces with your initials on them (though hold that thought… your initials are coming into play shortly…), and quilted sherpa robes that have never seen infant urp or bacon grease that splattered while you were making the family breakfast, the sort you wear while your hip bones jut out and your lips are oddly perfectly pouty and glistening first thing in the morning when you roll out of bed. I mean, you probably look like that and all, but just don’t have the robe. Behold: the benefit of the doubt.

But actually, we get messy. Our relationships get knots and kinks and tassels, sometimes from sin, and sometimes from sickness and our minds breaking down and our hearts taking the normal beating that comes of living downstream from the first Adam. Our best intentions lead us… well… not to sparkly necklaces, and instead closer to something that rhymes with “bell”. We are easily overwhelmed when we are supposed to be rejoicing, we cannot get the people around us to play the roles we wrote for them in our minds (and probably didn’t mention to them) — how could our kids not instinctively know that they were supposed to break into spontaneous songs of joy when we brought the holiday meatloaf out of the oven (because any dish can be made festive if you put the word “holiday” in front of it. I am not making this up. Check any magazine while you wait in line at the grocery store and you’ll see “holiday root beer”, “holiday tortellini”, “holiday vacuuming tips”. This, in case you were curious, this is a “holiday blog post”)? And there is a kind of a messiness we cause, that needs repenting of, and forgiveness and restoration. I am not talking about that kind today.

I am talking about what happens when God puts you in an ugly sweater at Christmastime. When you have a struggle, a trial, that He adds so much vivid color to that you can no longer hide it. How do I respond when the trial doesn’t pass quickly? It isn’t just something I put on once as a gag at a holiday party, but rather something that God in His providence requires me to wear daily… something it feels humiliating to have no control over, yet something He is using to draw my attention and the attention of everyone forced to lay eyes on me back to the One who gave it to me — even if, at first at least, it is to be wide-eyed, asking why?

Because your current ugly sweater has your initials written all over it. This is no bargain bin affliction that you are wearing just so that you can feel extra foolish when you go out in public. This is hand-crafted for you, and it is accomplishing something bigger than the light on Rudolph’s battery operated nose. I find myself wishing I could tie neat little bows around my current afflictions, have them be a thing I dealt with last week, but now can give a wise, spiritual assessment of — in the past tense, when in truth, I find myself increasingly having to stare down the discomfort of an ongoing, visible trial that has my name written all over it. I am having to learn to give thanks when it itches, when to wear it is to writhe, and to give thanks even though everybody can see it, even though I cannot save face or pretend that everything is shiny.

The just live by faith. I am asked by the Lord who loves me, who has designed my trials with love and with my needs in mind, who is allowing me the privilege and joy of participating in my Savior’s suffering and identifying myself with Him, to step out in faith and obey Him. I am called to wear the sweater, to stay the course and not to try and vindicate myself, but to wait on Him to set injustices right, to trust Him to make this suffering a fleeting memory compared to the glory He is going to bring out of the ugliness.

He is coming. So I am sitting at the manger this morning, in my ugly Christmas sweater, because Christ took on all my ugliness, so I can be sure that one day, it will be finally done with, never to rear its ugly head again.

“Lord Jesus, come Yourself, and dwell with us, be human as we are, and overcome what overwhelms us. Come into the midst of my evil, come close to my unfaithfulness. Share my sin, which I hate, and which I cannot leave. Be my brother, Thou Holy God. Be my brother in the kingdom of evil and suffering and death.” — Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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