Like many, Christmas is by far my favorite time of year. There is a richness of life and color. Houses, trees and city streets seem to stand up a bit straighter as we all do when we put on our best clothes. The world shines a pregnant glow. The air grows cooler, and we imagine the warmth inside all those shops and homes with smoke-filled chimneys.
We hear solemn and joyful music we only listen to once a year. Even the most health-conscious among us tend to forego our self-discipline for the rich banquets and sweet delicacies of these waning, blissful days. And, of course, there is the joy of family and friends, of giving and receiving, the joy of togetherness that is more poignant now than at any other time.
But, accompanying this Norman-Rockwell delight, others are overwhelmed this time of year by a deep sadness. Why? Perhaps because, while being reminded of the fullness of life and family, they instead find exposed the empty spaces where that is missing for them, or at least where it is stifled by the world’s cruelty or human dysfunction.
For years, Christmas was only a time of grief for my mom. Her own mother died just a few days before the holiday, and so every year was a reminder of that empty hole in her life. I remember when I was single how Christmas was about as bad as Valentine’s Day—I didn’t need another holiday to highlight how lonely I was.
And, so many families fight during the holidays, trying meet this grotesque standard for the perfect gift, or the perfect meal, or the perfect gathering. But, none of us are perfect, and Christmas often brings us front-and-center with that reality. Our blood-pressure surges amidst the press of extra traffic and crowded stores, so many people clamoring for togetherness that they practically kill each other in its pursuit.
Again, Christmas is hard for many because we can’t negotiate this nearness of the bitter with the sweet, with all that we lack standing so close to this celebration of life and relationship. But, if you’ll follow me, I think that that is one of the chief purposes of the season. The emptiness we feel is intended to be a gateway for celebrating its richness.
Let me explain. Christmas celebrates the time when Jesus Christ, in all his glory and innocence, entered this earth and came as close as you can get to our dysfunctional humanity and the world’s depravity. He was purposely conceived amidst the sexual scandal of illegitimacy. The first news of his birth was given to shepherds, among the lowest social outcasts in that culture. He was born in the most impoverished conditions–without anesthetic, without medical assistance, amidst animal waste and a complete lack of sanitation.
You see, this God of eternity didn’t come into the world to commemorate a celebration that has no place for the things we lack. If anyone has cause to celebrate the season, it’s the person who feels that something is missing.
Christmas is a reminder that God is now finally with us in our brokenness and longing—our secret, selfish desires, our depression, our family fights, our overeating, our obsession with giving the perfect gift, our deep grief over loved-ones lost, our aching desire for a spouse or a baby, our desire to reconcile with that family-member after so many years. God is with us in all this and can identify with our darkest existence.
Ultimately, Christ’s coming was meant to satisfy our yearning to know that we can come to God as we are, especially in all our melancholy hopelessness—that this little, tiny, helpless child has come to let us hold him in our frail arms, to feel the warmth of his innocence, to experience a hope that finally rings true.
Christmas is for all of us. Yes, for those who already know this joy, but especially for those who don’t. It is all a little bittersweet. But I think, that’s the point of the season.