While the songs proclaim Christmas to be the most wonderful time of the year, for many, Christmas exposes painful wounds, both new and old. This year, those wounds are particularly raw in light of the senseless shootings in Connecticut, the government’s impending financial crisis and extended high levels of unemployment. While Christmas’s tinsel and perky music seems particularly dissonant right now, the events Christians commemorate this holiday season speak into mess and pain and unhappy endings, possibly better than they speak to good times. Jesus was born on a day just as dark and painful as today, if not worse. We need Christmas right now, even though it hurts. We need Christmas because it hurts.
1. For those who mourn the loss of loved ones, whether for the first time this Christmas or year after year, Christmas reminds us of God’s promise that one day wrong will fail and right prevail. This is my fifth Christmas without my oldest daughter. As a bereaved parent, I enter Advent with a longing reminiscent of Israel waiting for the Messiah. Christians separated by death from parents, children, siblings or other loved ones can take comfort in Israel’s Messiah—long-awaited and finally here.
2. For those who wonder if God is a loving God, Christmas demonstrates God’s love in flesh and blood. At Christmas, God goes to extremes to rescue his people, redeem the helpless and heal the broken. God loves his creation, even though we took our freedom and made a royal mess. That love is so great that he left his divinity behind, became human, grew from newborn to adult and then died. Think of that: the divine immortal God chose to live and die like a finite mortal. Who would do that? Only One who loves infinitely.
3. For those who wander, unsure which way to go, Christmas reveals true stories of many of God’s children also unsure what to do or where to go. These ordinary people only knew a tiny piece of the grand rescue plan of which they were a part. Mary did not know how Joseph would respond to her pregnancy, and Joseph did not know how to respond. Elizabeth did not know if her husband would ever speak again. The wise men did not know where the star would lead them. But all listened to what little was given them and did the best they could with what they had. This is all anyone can ask: do the next thing, whether the road ahead is clear or shrouded in uncertainty. The wandering are in good company.
4. For those who fear, the Christmas story shouts, “Have no fear!” and “Rejoice!” Over and over, the angels in the Christmas story preface their announcements with the phrase, “Do not be afraid,” followed almost immediately with good news: Zechariah in Luke 1:13, Mary in Luke 1:28-30, Joseph in Matthew 1:20, and the shepherds in Luke 2:8-10. They all had reason to fear. They faced an uncertain future. Mary was pregnant out of wedlock, and Joseph was caught in the midst of her scandal. Zechariah went months unable to speak. The Christmas story show us that good news, while exciting, can also be scary.
5. For the alienated and cut off, the loveless and heartbroken, and the lonely, Christmas shows us God favors society’s underdogs. God is the original author of the Cinderella story, choosing to demonstrate his love and power in the lives of those we pass over: the weak, the ugly, the foreign, the poor, the single, the oppressed. As the apostle Paul wrote, “God’s power is perfected in weakness.” In God’s upside-down kingdom, the strong are weak, the beautiful are ugly, the rich are poor and the well-positioned are slaves. This is good news.
6. For those who have sinned and feel unworthy of forgiveness or a second chance, Christmas presents God’s outrageous unbelievable forgiveness in Jesus, the promised Savior. God does not hesitate to enter the mess and scandal of life—Jesus’s birth is soaked in scandal, and he lived his life among sinners. He offered second chances to Pharisees (Nicodemus), loose women (Mary Magdalene), adulterers (the woman caught in sin), cheats (Zacchaeus), thieves (the man crucified next to him) and traitors (Peter). In Jesus, God tells us no sin is too great for God to forgive.
7. For those who have lost all hope, Christmas is the epitome of hope. God’s glory shines through brokenness, scandal, oppression and political upheaval. Jesus is God’s rescue mission for his people and his Creation. It proves God knows how we suffer. God sees it, God enters into it, he is at work to correct it, and he invites us to join him in this holy work.
8. For those who are weary, Christmas promises rest, both physical and soul rest. Jesus came to relieve the burdens of his people. He came to win eternal rest for all. In a physical sense, the pause to celebrate the Incarnation provides a chance to slow down. Human beings need rest, and observing this holiday builds in a natural pause if people are willing to take it.
9. For those who doubt, Jesus’s birth anchors us to time and place and history. Jesus reserved some of his kindest, most patient words for those who struggled to believe he was the Messiah.
10. For those who just need to hear some good news, Emmanuel—“God with us”—is the best news. The Christmas story is a very human yet fully divine story, embroiled in scandal and showered with angelic fanfare, fulfilled prophesies, and kept promises. It draws our gaze upward and outward, away from our pain and toward God and others. It teaches us healing comes from giving of ourselves and invites us ordinary people to join God’s work restoring the world.