A Confusing Christmas

Christmas is a time associated with joy, and rightfully so. But the way we associate a joyful Christmas is often skewed. Santa can be wonderful. Family gatherings can be warm and full. But at some point, traditions of merry-making that perhaps came from joy rooted in the birth of the Christ child—became rooted in experiential merriness for it’s own sake. We began to worship tradition and a certain strain of circumstantial joy found in it, rather than the source of our joy, the Christ child. As we did this, we began to define that strain of Christmas joy fairly narrowly: warm rooms full of rosy-cheeked family and friends sharing rich food, drinks and minimal conflict by a roaring hearth of familiarity and comfort.

When this sort of scene becomes the expectation for the very purpose of Christmas, anxiety, depression and bitterness are often the result. Those who are occasionally or consistently denied this type of Christmas dread a holiday that accentuates their pain. Others go to incredible lengths to provide these merry experiences and exhaust both themselves and their guests with their pursuits of holiday perfection. Christmas—the holiday intended to bring good news of great joy—is twisted into a herald of fear, loneliness and fatigue.

This shouldn’t be.

A Remembered Christmas

When I was 16 I remember staring down at the baby Jesus in my church’s pageant and thinking, I don’t get this. I looked at that baby we were all singing about and felt nothing. I prayed that God would help me understand the joy he was announcing at this baby’s birth and why he was worthy of it.

Ten years later, the Lord seemed to bring the understanding he had grown in me to a crescendo when he gave me my first son on December 26. I thought about Mary a lot that Advent. I cried a lot when I thought about how scared she must have been, because I was scared now too.  I was struck by the mixture of glory and terror that comes with bringing your first child into a broken world. Considering the circumstance of that first historic Christmas, I realized how intensely it had nothing to do with comfort. Frankly, it must have been extremely uncomfortable and frightening. Glorious? Absolutely. But also terrible. A young woman prepared to give birth to a child that wasn’t her husband's. At the end of her pregnancy she had to journey by donkey—for a census of all things—to a land where they wouldn’t know anyone. She gave birth in a filthy place with only a (likely) equally scared man to comfort her. She had no mother to hold her hand. No aunts or uncles or cousins bringing her familiarity. No midwife. No sense of safety.

But from this incredibly unlikely, humble and scary circumstance, God performed the most beautiful, gracious and awe-inspiring of miracles: He entered into our world . . . into our mess, our fear, and our pain. From an unprepared, fragile and finite girl, He brought forth the long-awaited Savior of the universe . . . as a weak, defenseless infant. An infant, who would grow into a man who would die for us, to end our war with God. If only we would believe him.

Embracing Christmas

Into the bleak, dark and tormented night our God humiliated himself to come in the flesh and rescue us where we stood. Does this fact not—of all things—bring the unhappiest of Christmas circumstances the fullest measure of joy? True joy. Ultimate joy.

Those who weep at Christmas—in hospital beds, in empty homes, in shelters, in family conflict or loneliness—are not marginalized from experiencing the purpose of Christmas because of their circumstance. Rather, the magnificence of experiencing the joy of Christmas is actually made more deeply available to sufferers because of pain. We have mistaken the purpose of Christmas as celebrating a break—a holiday—from suffering. But the purpose of Christmas is to celebrate a God who entered into our suffering to be with us. Immanuel, born as a baby, became like us to be with us, to die for us, to restore us to our Maker.

Families will always be messy because people are messy. Pain will be ever-present in this life. And life on this earth will never feel fair. This side of heaven, everything will always be changing. Even those with the best of traditions will find themselves in a strange mourning each year as children grow up and grandparents pass on. If our joy is rooted in the traditions of Christmas, our joy will be challenged by the passage of time and the passing of those we love that changes these traditions. Thanks be to God, then, that our joy is rooted in Jesus.

Remember these words by hymn writer Isaac Watts and remember what we truly celebrate.

Joy to the world! The Lord has come
Let earth receive her King!
Let every heart prepare Him room

And heaven and nature sing
And heaven and nature sing

And heaven, and heaven and nature sing

Joy to the world! the Savior reigns
Let men their songs employ
While fields and floods
Rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy

Repeat the sounding joy
Repeat, repeat the sounding joy

No more let sins and sorrows grow
Nor thorns infest the ground
He comes to make

His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found
Far as the curse is found

Far as, far as the curse is found

Praise God. The joy of Christmas is not out of reach for anyone who believes in our Savior.

Dorsey Swindall is a biblical counselor with One-Eighty Counseling and Education in Louisville, Kentucky. She and her husband have two children.