I love the weeks leading up to Christmas. We begin to think about Christmas gifts, play festive music, decorate our homes, and enjoy treasured stories like The Night Before Christmas, It’s a Wonderful Life, and A Charlie Brown Christmas. We listen to the retelling of the greatest story of all, the one in which Jesus, the Prince of Peace, is born in a lowly manger to bring peace and joy to the world. As joy-filled as the holiday season can be, though, we might not feel very full of joy. But it’s okay to not be okay during Christmas. In fact, when we don’t feel okay - whether because we’re lost, lonely, or suffering in some other way - we can trust that this is precisely why Jesus came.
The holidays can be a time of tense family interactions, and even if our Christmas day is beautiful and magical, we often return to our normal routines on December 26. After remembering the birth of our Savior and wondering about its meaning for us now, it might feel like nothing much happened when the gifts have been opened, leftovers polished off, and work schedules resumed.
But Christmas gives us lasting meaning and hope long after December 25, and whether that day was filled with sorrow or joy.
A History of Sorrow and Joy
The Bible tells us the story of a God who continually invites His people to grow closer to Him, and to even grow a relationship with Him. The story of God’s first people (Israel), much like our own, oscillated between periods of waiting and joy, suffering and glory.
God spoke to Abraham and revealed a glimpse of that future glory: descendants as numerous as the stars in the night sky. But His people were enslaved and suffering. God heard their cries - not immediately, just as it usually isn’t immediate with us, but He eventually asked Moses to lead the people out of slavery.
And most importantly, God was with them during all of their wandering and grumbling. He never abandoned them. He appeared in pillars of smoke and fire and gave them the gift of food every morning. When His people reached their destination, they wanted a king. So God gave them one.
It was easy for them to believe in God’s love when there were men like King David who loved God and led them courageously. But Israel was attacked, their place of worship destroyed, and their people exiled. Their suffering was great and it seemed like God was far from present. It seemed like He had abandoned them. The psalms in the Bible speak of the pain and near despair of this time: How long, O Lord, will you turn your face from us?
So, too, might we wonder when we feel abandoned: God, why are you letting me suffer? Why did you let this happen? Where are you? And when are you going to help me?
God With Us in the Sorrow and Joy
For God’s people, decades turned to centuries as they waited for the glory that God promised to Abraham so long ago. They waited for the glory that the prophets kept speaking of. There would be a Savior, someone to lift the people out of their misery. He would be called Emmanuel, God with us.
And at last, in the darkness of night, in an empty cave, in the dirty feeding trough of farm animals, a child was born. He cried and was hungry and pooped and needed soothing. He was a baby totally dependent on his mother even to hold up his own head. He wasn’t the Savior they expected, arriving in a rush of kingly glory, because God saves us not by ending our suffering, but by entering into it with us.
God could have opened Heaven up to us in any number of ways. And yet, the all-powerful God chose to take on human flesh as a baby in the womb of a poor, single mother. Through the Incarnation, hope and love entered the world in a new way.
In becoming human, God gave us the ability to be with him - forever. Our salvation began with God becoming a tiny embryo in Mary’s womb, who would be born in the poorest of conditions. What beautiful and surprising love.
This Christmas, we’ll hear many a familiar story of the birth of Jesus: Mary and Joseph finding no room at the inn, shepherds making haste to visit the babe, and wise men following the stars by night. We’ve heard this message of hope time and time again. And yet, this is why the Church has us listen to these stories every year: It takes time for us to grasp the depth of God’s love that we see in the birth of Jesus. And it shows us, every single year, that God enters into the messiness of our lives. He did so on the first Christmas, and He wants to do so every day of our own lives.
So yes, it’s okay to not be okay on Christmas, because Jesus came for those who were not okay, who needed his help, his healing, and his love. If you’re not doing okay this Christmas, we encourage you to ask God to be with you - and trust that He will come, as He did so many years ago.