As I walk through the mall, I see and hear the sights and sounds of Christmas. The music plays, “Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Let your heart be light. From now on, our troubles will be out of sight.” The ornate window presentations implicitly exclaim, “This gift will definitely make your loved one smile!” Then I spy Santa with his naturally white long hair and beard, who so genuinely looks the part that his appearance generates warm, blissful feelings, bringing out the child in me that wants to say, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus!” Everywhere I turn, the festivities of the holiday season indicate, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”
Yet, this Christmas, I find myself pausing and wondering about such a sentiment. As I reflect, I notice how the one predominant emotion advertised at Christmas is happiness. Granted, such expectations begin for us as children, but the intense anticipation does not seem to dissipate as we grow into adults. With all of the colorful decorations, the cheerful music, and the gift giving, our culture declares, “’Tis the season to be jolly.” The church culture also proclaims a similar message, as an old carol commands, we are to rejoice, “With heart and soul and voice!”
Such an emphasis reminds me of a grand musical production. All the bright lights, pretty wrapped gifts with ribbons, scrumptious sweets, and happy music are part of a slow crescendo with a goal to lift the audience to mountain top heights with feelings of exuberance, excitement, and exhilaration. But in this production, we are not only in the audience, but we also are the participants. Each home, family, and person is responsible to help create an experience of euphoria as we march towards the grand finale.
Yet, many of us are not up to such a challenging task. Many do not have the external and/or internal resources to match the intense anticipation of the buildup that is promoted in our culture during the holiday season.
- Some are like myself, being aware that there will be an extra, empty chair at the table this year for Christmas.
- Some individuals are experiencing the gradual loss of a family member via dementia.
- Others are sitting in a hospital room, wondering if their loved one will survive, or the family has just placed a family member on hospice, knowing that the end is imminent.
- Some divorced couples are attempting to work out a schedule of how to shuttle the kids to the other’s house and still remain civil.
- There are those whose finances are super tight as they experience unemployment.
- Others are facing the reality they have no home in which to celebrate Christmas due to a disaster such a flood or fire.
- Some have rarely experienced Christmas as a joyous time of the year as Dad hits Mom or drinks too much, becoming violent.
- For others, Christmas is like every other day—a day of depression.
For these and so many others, the holiday season is not a beautiful sight in which they are happy tonight. Rather than walking through a winter wonderland, they are experiencing the journey through a winter sorrowland.
As I reflect on this Christmas juxtaposed with the losses humans experience, it is interesting that in a similar fashion of no room at the inn for Mary and Joseph, there is no room for grieving during the Christmas season. Yet . . . the story of Jesus’ birth includes sorrow with joy.
Consider with me for a moment the Messiah’s birth narrative of Luke. Pentecostal Martin Mittelstadt writes in The Spirit and Suffering in Luke-Acts that this main theological scriptural text for Pentecostals (i.e., Luke-Acts) is not only about miracles and joy but also suffering and sorrow. The story of Jesus’ birth is no exception. While Luke 2 speaks of the angels’ joyous announcement to the shepherds of the Savior’s birth, it also predicts suffering in verses 25 through 35. This is the story of Simeon, a righteous man who entered the temple at the time Mary and Joseph had brought the infant Jesus to be presented to the Lord. Mittelstadt reminds us, (particularly Pentecostals) that Simeon prophesies over Jesus, speaking not only of Jesus being the salvation for all but that there would also be division as a result of him; thus, both acceptance and rejection are predicted and are part of the divine plan. And as for Mary . . . she too will not automatically believe, as Mittelstadt writes, but will struggle whether to accept or reject Jesus as her Redeemer.
Joy is juxtaposed with sorrow.
But Luke is not the only Gospel writer to include grief amidst exultation.
In the account in Matthew we notice the awe-inspiring wonders that are placed alongside the horrors of cruelty. We will marvel at the miracles that occur in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth, such as Joseph being visited in a dream by an angel to take Mary as his wife; the star over the place where the baby Jesus lived; and the mysterious wise men who travel a great distance to worship Jesus, bringing him gifts. Granted, the story of the magi who come from afar to worship Jesus in Matthew is not originally a part of the birth narrative that occurs in the stable in Luke, but it has often been included in the Christmas story. However, if we are to do justice to Matthew’s story, we cannot close our eyes to the brutality that also transpires: Amidst these glorious wonders, there are the murders of children under the age of two by a paranoid and jealous leader, Herod the Great. Matthew 2:18 reads, “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud wailing, Rachel weeping for her children, and she did not want to be comforted, because they were gone” (NET).
Joy is juxtaposed with sorrow.
Thus, unlike the American cultural version of Christmas, there is room for grief in the joyous events surrounding the birth narratives. In fact, Matthew highlights that Jesus, the human-divine one, is present in the midst of suffering. Matthew clearly says, that Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us (1:23). He is not simply God who dwells among us amidst joy, but he is God who tabernacles among us in the midst of sorrow, too.
This Christmas if we are discovering in our own lives that the season is falling short of the culture’s advertised hype, may we find the courage to join the Spirit of the Lukan birth narrative who embraces both acceptance and rejection. May we who are unable to meet the high expectations of exuberance rediscover anew in Matthew’s account the God who is present in the wonder and in the weeping.
God truly is Emmanuel, who is with us in our grief as well as in our joy.