I have always loved the Christmas season, and I’ll admit, I’d be hard pressed to pick a favorite “thing” – because I love just about everything about it. The warm sweaters, hot chocolate with candy canes, seasonal lattes at every coffee shop in town. The lights! On houses, lining city streets. The fun of finding something special to surprise friends and loved ones with, even if they are just small things. Holiday baking and giving it all away. Getting to see pictures as cards arrive in the mail or pictures are posted online. Family memories – reliving old ones and making new ones. And yes I pretty much binge every cheesy holiday movie out there.
All that being said, I also hold the tension and reality that holidays are hard for a lot of people, for a lot of reasons. I have friends who lost loved ones this year, people who are struggling just to survive, hearts that are breaking for a number of reasons… and for me, it makes the spiritual aspect of Christmas that much more important. I’m not talking the general “Christmas spirit” or human kindness that tends to be in greater supply this time of year, although that part is always nice.
I’m talking about the reality of the pain of humanity that the God of the universe decided to step into so many years ago, and how different aspects of the story can unravel us in different ways, if we will let it.
There are the good things – like how seeing a newborn around Christmas reminds you of the awe that the God of the universe took on human flesh. It’s humbling. Or maybe when you see a big star in the sky, you wonder why people from countries far from Bethlehem would come looking for someone from an ancient text. Or it could be the ordinariness of the actors in the story, because it gives you hope that God can use the life of someone regular like you to make a difference.
Then there are the hard things too – living in occupied territory or a country that feels strange, being afraid of death every time you turn the corner, the poverty of a town or community, or religious and family dynamics you see in the story.
For me, there’s a part of the Christmas story I began to understand so much more deeply not too many years ago, when my story went from enjoying Christmas to the holidays feeling like a living hell. It was the year my first marriage was starting to end, and we had told no one.
I remember sitting in church one day in early December, trying desperately to remember it was supposed to be a joyful and reflective time – and all I could pay attention to was the secret shame I was carrying, alongside the mixed knowledge that God was doing something bigger that I couldn’t see. (Honestly, I could have cared less about the ‘bigger picture’ because the voice of shame and fear were just too big at the time.)
As the passage of the angel speaking to Mary was read, it was in that moment where fear and shame collided …. and I realized in a new way what it must have been like for Mary. Who would even believe her? And yet knowing the shame it would bring on her family, the risk to her very life, and the fact she didn’t know how it would all play out…. she still said yes?
GIRL. Such trust!
Shameless movie plug: If you have never seen the movie The Nativity Story (2005) – I’d highly recommend it. Although the wise men still show up at the wrong time chronologically, the very humanity of Mary and Joseph, their journey and what it must have been like for them comes to light in such a new way. It has become a favorite of mine over the years!
Ever since then, my prayer at Christmas is that God would redeem the time, redeem the sacredness of the holiday, redeem out of pain and back to joy… and he has, but I can no longer enjoy all of the fun of Christmas without also holding the pain of others in a deeper way.
Every year, it reminds me that this is precisely why he came.
Because we so desperately need to know that on the other side of suffering and loss and pain and unbearable things – there is an anchor for our souls. There is hope, deeper than what our world can offer. There is, available to everyone who asks, a deep and abiding joy that the unbearably difficult things of this world can never take away.
So I offer these words to those of you who are struggling:
I invite you to take a minute to consider what it even means that the God of Love would come as a baby. What does it say about our value as humans, and about YOU?
For me, this is what I see Christmas defiantly saying…..
• It’s time to stop thinking I’m against you. I’m here, and I’m sticking around. Risk trusting me, I won’t fail you.
• I see you, and I see your tears and your questions. Talk to me, I am a pretty good counselor.
• You don’t have to worry about the ‘big picture’. I’ve got that. Just walk with me. I won’t answer all your questions … but you will find life for your soul, I promise.
• I know there are things in this world that will cause you shame. Hold your head up. You are my child, and I’ll bring you out of it.
• I’ll show you another way, a way of love that heals.
May you know the deep love that has come into our world, the richness that is ours if we will but kneel before a mystery we cannot fully grasp. Take a moment in the quiet and risk trusting in His greater love that surpasses everything we could ever comprehend.
Blessings, my friends!