God knows, Christmas can be a very difficult time of year.
As a child, I was always vaguely uncomfortable whenever my aunt and uncle joined us for Christmas. They would sit on the sidelines, watching us open gift after gift, and never seemed to have many presents of their own to open. Christmas morning was a spectator sport for them, which should have elicited my sympathy. Instead, with the typical self-centeredness of childhood, I soon forgot about them as I looked for more presents with my name on them.
Years later, when my sisters and I were young adults, my newly widowed uncle joined us for an improvised Christmas celebration. My first niece was a 1-year-old toddler and her new cousin, my second niece, came home from the hospital on Christmas afternoon. We carted our presents and Christmas meal to my sister's home, eager to see the new baby. As we cooed and fussed over the girls — oblivious to my uncle, the stoic World War II veteran — he suddenly burst into tears, a novel sight to us.
"It's my first Christmas without her," he said, referring to his wife. "I miss her so much."
I was dumbstruck. Why hadn't this occurred to me before? There we were, making such a fuss over the newest addition to our family, while my uncle grieved for one who had departed.
That was the first time I became aware of the deep river of loneliness that often courses through the Christmas season for many people. This year, two of my friends are grieving — one for the passing of her husband of five months and one for the passing of his fiancée five months before their wedding. A third friend still marks the December death of her first husband more than 10 years ago.
There are many reasons for grieving, not all of them related to physical death. Some grieve the death of hopes and plans, as the years of singleness, childlessness, or chronic illness accumulate. Others grieve the families they once had, now divided by divorce. Still others miss the ease of family celebrations before this new, blended family arrangement hit them.
Christmas often staggers under the weight of human emotion and expectation — just as it has from the very start.
From a human perspective, the first "Christmas," so to speak, was simultaneously crowded and lonely. Dispirited Jews shuffled around the region, required to be part of a new, universal Roman census for possibly the first time. (Previously Palestine had been excluded from the Roman census because Jews were exempt from serving in the Roman army.) Among those sojourners was a young couple with a whiff of scandal about them.
Despite her advanced pregnancy, Mary and Joseph traversed 70 miles of difficult, mountainous terrain to be counted and most likely taxed. Her questionable pregnancy may have deprived Mary of the friendship of other women back in Nazareth, but there in Bethlehem, it's very likely she gave birth without the usual crowd of womenfolk there to support her and rejoice with her at the birth of a son. And then, because there was no room at the inn, Mary placed her son in a manger.
Lowly shepherds — excluded from society because their work was dirty and it prevented them from participating in the religious activities of the community — and stargazing pagans from the East were the only people who seemed to note the birth of Jesus. Scripture does not record that any other human beings noticed or celebrated.
Heaven, however, was bursting with praise. A multitude of the heavenly host (host being a term to describe an army encampment — in other words, an enormous number) suddenly appeared, saying: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!" (Luke 2:14).
While this poor teen couple from an unremarkable region tended to the helpless, swaddled Savior, the rest of the world went on fighting, drinking, eating, stealing, building, hoping, dying, loving, lying and leaving. It seemed like any other day, but it was not.
At that moment, Mary was experiencing a fulfillment of her cousin's blessing: "Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!" (Luke 1:45). Elizabeth, who bore the reproach of barrenness for so many years, was the one to utter this blessing to her younger cousin with the mysterious pregnancy. As she spoke those words, an elderly widow named Anna who was waiting in the temple in Jerusalem and praying for the redemption of Israel. Three women at different seasons of life but each trusting God for His timetable in the midst of their grief, loneliness and trials — the weight of human emotion.
The day Jesus was born, many Jews were eagerly expecting a messiah to come one day. Their expectation was for political deliverance, not deliverance from sin. They thought their biggest problem was Rome and thus their solution was an earthly king.
Just like today, expectation and emotion ruled the day. And just like the day Jesus was born, there is a true perspective from heaven that transcends our own parochial outlook. That's why one of my favorite Christmas songs is not one you will hear in the shopping mall. It contains no references to Santa, snow, reindeer or roadkill, gift requests, romantic overtures, or three kings. The lyrics simply point to the larger reason for Christmas.
Christ the Lord is born today
He came from heaven's throne
God is born a man today
To bring His children home
What I love about this song is that I'm reminded of the one event that can bear up under the weight of human emotion and expectation. Because of His incarnation and resurrection, Jesus Christ will return one day to collect His people and bring them home.
No matter how lonely Christmas feels to any of us this year, we know someone who has endured far more loneliness than we ever will — and He did it to rescue us. Jesus was born into a lowly family, lived an itinerant life, and in the end was forsaken by friends and disciples. Separated from the Trinitarian community He had known since eternity past, in physical misery and torturous pain, Jesus cried out from the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" His loneliness we will never know, but His joy we do know in part now and will know even more in the new heavens and new earth.
This hope is the sweet possession of all those who love the Lord but are grieving this Christmas. This fellowship in the Lord is the priceless treasure of all those who love the Lord but are lonely this Christmas. While our culture eagerly pursues the perfect holiday celebration, we know that these are fleeting efforts ... in this life. But we can have every confidence that the day Jesus returns to bring His children home, that celebration will carry every human expectation and emotion into the glory of God's fully revealed presence.
Until then, may we look at loneliness or grief with the eyes of faith, looking for the redemptive element in these difficulties. These emotions are able to remind us that we are not home here. And from our loneliness, may the Lord cause new empathy for others to overflow.
God is born a man today to bring His children home. Merry Christmas!
Copyright 2007 Carolyn McCulley. All rights reserved..