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Thursday, December 6, 2018

Is it Really a Time to Celebrate?


This year, at my church, we will be hosting a “Blue Christmas Vespers Service,” designed for individuals who, instead of looking forward to Christmas with joy, are doing so with a deep sense of dread and sadness.  For some of my readers, this will be the first Christmas post-divorce.  That means money may be very tight.  It may mean that they will be with their children only a portion of Christmas, as the children are shared between parents.  For some it will mean spending what is supposed to be such a joyful holiday all alone, shedding tears of loneliness.  

Others are dreading Christmas for other reasons. Perhaps a spouse or loved one passed away in the last year, and so this is the first Christmas without that person. Others will have lost their job, or, for those folks out in California, some will have lost their homes and their possessions.  Some will be dreading the holiday simply for the reason that family members are not going to be able to come home, and so it will be a holiday all alone.  Others are just struggling financially, and wrestle with the fact that they don’t have the wherewithal to purchase the gifts they would like this year.  And there are those who are the ones who have been displaced, serving in the military overseas, or far away for educational or work reasons, who are going to spend the holiday away from family and home. 

I visited briefly with a gentleman one day, whose spouse has recently entered a care facility for people with Alzheimer’s disease…and just talking about the upcoming Christmas was difficult for him. 

 As everyone else is singing “Joy to the World” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” what are these individuals to do?  

As I have been working on the preparations for the service, one of the things that has really struck me is that even the first Christmas was not all jolly and merriment.  After all, Mary and Joseph were themselves displaced for the purpose of taxation…and who in their right mind would be joyful about that?!?  When they got to the village, they weren’t even able to stay in a proper facility, but had to be out with the animals in a manger (no advance reservations or Presidential suites for them!).  And, of course, as we all have been reminded by our mothers and wives at some point or another, even the birthing of the baby Jesus involved the pains of labor.  Sure, that anguish tends to be replaced by the joy of having a newborn child, but that doesn’t diminish the pain gone through to get there.  

But most of all, I am somewhat haunted by the portion of the story found in Matthew 2:

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and 
he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. 

  Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:

 “A voice was heard in Ramah,

    weeping and loud lamentation,

Rachel weeping for her children;

    she refused to be comforted, 

because they are no more.”   (ESV)

Our world is filled not just with joy and celebrations, but also with sorrow and pain, suffering and hardship.  It always has been.  And that is true of the first Christmas as well.  The story of Immanuel, “God with us” includes the fact that, from the very beginning, in Christ, God was with us in the midst of our sorrow and sadness, not as an escape artist far removed from it.  What anguish there must have been in Bethlehem as day after day, funerals were held for those poor little children so viciously attacked.  How the mothers and fathers eyes must have been red with tears and their nights filled with troubled sleep.  And yet…

And yet, even in the midst of this awful tragedy, Jesus was present on earth, beginning the life that would one day redeem us and lift us above all the weights of this world.  The Spirit of God has been sent forth to those who believe, so that no matter what hardships we suffer and face, we know that we are never alone…Immanuel:  God is with us.  In the months after my divorce, when the house felt so empty and loneliness was overwhelming, a wise friend reminded me more than once that though I may be very lonely, I was never truly alone.

In the story of YOUR Christmas this year, there may also be a mixture of angelic rejoicing and tearful anguish.  It is the way of this world.  It was there when Christmas began, and it will continue to be in one form or another until the day when God calls it all to an end, and personally wipes every tear from our eyes.  Take comfort in knowing that it wasn’t into some storybook fairy tale world that Jesus came, but into the world in which you and I live…the world filled with joy and hurt and kindness and hatred and acceptance and racism…God has entered into the world as it is, and invites us to walk with him through whatever that life may bring, so that we may find meaning and hope no matter what comes. 

As you journey toward Christmas, may you always remember that you never need to journey alone.  

Immanuel—God is with you.  


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