Christmas day has come and gone and I must say, it did not exactly turn out as I had imagined it. But looking back on Christmases past, I have to honestly admit, they never really do. In fact, I am beginning to believe that the picture perfect “Courier and Ives/ Better Homes and Gardens/Southern Living style Christmases do not exist. However, the more Christmases I celebrate, the more I am actually becoming okay with this reality.
The weeks leading up to the Christmas day can be a very exciting, exhilarating, and joyful time for many of us. We can hardly wait for Thanksgiving to be over so that we can hit the Black Friday sales, hang up the Christmas decorations, and begin the festivities. Then there are children’s concerts to attend, church musicals, charitable endeavors to participate in, parties to attend, cookies to bake, school programs to volunteer for, shopping to do, menus to plan, travel arrangements to make etc. And for those of us who are even remotely familiar with the true meaning of Christmas, and are blessed with children, it can be a time of great opportunity and teachable moments as we strive each year to make the Christmas story more meaningful. This year in our home we celebrated Advent for the first time ever and plan to continue this tradition for that very reason. Even many who have suffered loss or are prone to depression during this time of year (as I was for so many years) may come into the season, with the slightest bit of hope that maybe this year will be different… maybe this will finally be the year that something “sticks” and their joy will be restored.
If we are not careful, we can place so much emphasis on preparing for the “perfect” Christmas experience and set our expectations so high that when the day itself finally arrives, if it doesn’t live up to what had hoped, we can actually end feeling a sense of disappointment and disillusionment instead of joy. Children go from delighting in their gifts to fighting, and acting like spoiled brats. Family gatherings are splintered by conflict. The squash casserole burns and the dessert looks nothing like the one on the cover of “Martha Stewart Living.” Half the dinner guests back out at the last-minute, and you are left with enough food to feed a small army. Flights are delayed. Adult children decide not to come home for Christmas this year. A spouse unexpectedly files for divorce. Unthinkable tragedies happen. Loved ones die etc… and you can continue to fill in the blanks. And so we may find ourselves wondering come December 26th, “What just happened here, have we somehow missed something and is this really all there is to Christmas?” Even if one has had a relatively good Christmas without incident, one could still be left with a sense of “Is this all there is?” Christmas withdrawal as I have started calling it, is that temporary feeling of sadness and even emptiness that can occur once the decorations come down, the radio stations and canned music in the stores abruptly stop playing Christmas music, retailers have moved on to the next big holiday, and except for the prevalence of New Years resolutions, things pretty much go back to business as usual. It is almost as if Christmas never even happened.
If any of these scenarios or even the feelings of Christmas day being a “let down” resonate with you, then it may be comforting to know that even the arrival of the long-awaited Messiah was not the perfect and spectacular event many of that day had hoped it would be. For so many centuries the people of Israel, the descendents of Abraham, God’s chosen people, had been promised the coming of the Messiah. God himself spoke of Him in the Garden of Eden as the one who would once and for all crush the head of the evil serpent. His ancestor, King David spoke of God putting everything under the feet and authority his distant descendent. Prophets of old spoke of this magnificent redeemer. Parents taught their children of his coming for generations. John, the Baptist prepared the way for His coming.
Though the people may not have fully have understood the significance of the Messiah’s coming, there was no doubt that He was to be someone great, one like no other. In fact, the prophet, Isaiah declared that the government would rest upon His shoulders, and described Him as being a Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, and the Prince of Peace. In another description Isaiah identified Him as being Immanuel, which means “God with us.” And so for generations, they waited, prepared, longed for, and anticipated the arrival of this King. And so it was only natural that people expected that this Messiah would arrive with great majesty and splendor fitting for one of royal birth, His parents would be of the highest pedigree, and that He would finally liberate them from the oppressive rule of the Roman government and take his place on King David’s earthy throne.
And yet the Messiah came in such a way that defied human logic. He was supernaturally conceived by an ordinary young woman who was engaged to be married to ordinary working class man, a carpenter. The Messiah was born in an atmosphere of great political unrest at which time heads of households were uprooted with their families by Herod’s edict to return to their ancestral homelands for the purpose of being counted in the census and taxed accordingly. As a result his mother, Mary found herself traveling to Bethlehem along with her new husband Joseph at the worst possible time… in her last few days of pregnancy when she was no doubt very large and very uncomfortable. To add insult to injury there was no room for them in the inn once they arrived in Bethlehem so the Messiah was born in the lowliest of environments and laid in an animal feeding trough.
For those who had grown complacent, gotten caught up in the issues of everyday life, and had long ceased to expect the Messiah’s coming, the night of his birth was just another night. In fact, many completely missed it. But to those who were paying attention, God revealed the coming of his son in a big way. A host of angels filled the sky and joyfully announced the savior’s birth. One has to wonder why with so many residents under the same sky that night in Bethlehem and the surrounding areas, the only ones who happened to be paying attention were a band of lowly shepherds out in the fields with their sheep. I have read that shepherds of that day were not the most revered people and were pretty much near the bottom of the social ladder in that day, just above tax collectors, prostitutes, and gentiles. And yet, these were the very people whom God chose as the first to know about the coming of His Son and who immediately responded, left their flocks, and headed to Bethlehem to see the child. Maybe this was one of the groups Jesus had in mind years later, when he said in his sermon on the mount, “God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the kingdom of Heaven is theirs.” Matthew 5:3
The thing I find most amazing is that even with the enthusiasm of the shepherds as they joyfully broadcast the news to everyone they came in contact with, the Bible makes no mention of anyone else venturing out to see the messiah that night though many were astonished. Eight days later as Mary and Joseph presented their special child in the temple for circumcision, 2 different individuals proclaimed him as God’s Messiah and prophesied about Him to all who were present. It was a special and exciting time for the children of Israel. Their long-awaited Messiah had finally come and all was right with the world at last.
Eventually however, the novelty and the excitement started to die down and things seemed to go back to business as usual. I can imagine that after a while many, including those who had seen the child and truly believed, began to wonder if anything had really changed, especially since it would be 30 years before Jesus’ earthly ministry would even begin. What had really happened that night? Had they missed something?
And then the most unthinkable tragedy happened. Approximately 2 years after the birth of the Messiah and just after the Magi from the east had come to see the child, King Herod in a quest to annihilate the Christ child, ordered the cold-blooded massacre of all male children in Bethlehem 2 years of age and under. The grief of those families whose children were so brutally murdered was unimaginable, their pain palpable. And yet… in the midst of their devastation the Messiah was nowhere to be found. After the Magi had returned to their own country Jesus’ earthly father had been warned in a dream to take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath. Perhaps even some of those same shepherds who had come to see Jesus the night of his birth were among those who had been mercilessly robbed of their young sons and found themselves confused, with more questions than answers. How God could have allowed such a horrible act of violence to happen to them and where was this Messiah when they needed him most? Where was the one who was supposed to be Immanuel, God with us?
And people are still asking these questions today during times of unspeakable cruelty and bloodshed when it seems like darkness and destruction have won. A bit closer to home, in December of 2012, a 20-year-old gunman brutally shot and killed his mother as she lay sleeping in her bed and then went on to mercilessly murder 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown CT. It was just 2 weeks before Christmas. To say that the families for the victims were devastated would be an understatement. The bowels of the earth writhed in deep horror, shock, and disbelief at the news. Even faithful believers no doubt wondered how a loving God could allow such an ungodly act and at a time that should have been filled with great joy and celebration. Where was the very Messiah they were celebrating when they needed him most? Is He really who He is supposed to be or not? And if He is, what just happened? Had they somehow missed something?
This is not an attempt to give a theological explanation for less than joyful Christmases or unspeakable tragedies during which the very Messiah we are celebrating seems silent and may even appear to be absent. For these times, there are no easy answers. One thing I do know for certain. In the darkest of times, whether during Christ’ earliest days on earth, or here in the 21st century one truth had to become and must still become evident in the hearts of true believers in the Messiah in order for their faith to survive. God truly is with us even in disappointment and tragedy, and the birth of the Christ was not meant to be the end of the story. In fact it was only the beginning of a much bigger plan. For those residents of Bethlehem whose sense of hope and joy at the birth of the Messiah was soon blindsided and crushed due to the senseless bloodbath by a murderous earthly king, God had a bigger plan. For those who were disillusioned or disappointed that there was not an immediate revolution and that nothing seemed to change at all with the birth of the Messiah, God had a bigger plan. And for those of us, today who are feeling a sense of disappointment that Christmas was not all that we had hoped it would be or are dealing with our own tragedies, God has a bigger plan. In fact it was for the very reason of evil reigning in the hearts of men, as well as our sorrows, pain, weakness, failure and disappointments that God sent his Son into the world. He came into our world bring us the love of Father God in human flesh. He willingly experienced the frailties of life as a human and dwelled among those he had created. And ultimately he bore the full wrath of God for our sins on his own body by surrendering himself to an intentionally brutal, slow, and painful death on the cross. And then he triumphed over death, crushing the powers of hell and emerged fully alive from the belly of the earth, on the third day as no longer just Messiah and Savior but LORD!
Yes, the birth of Christ was meant to be a time of celebration and rejoicing, and our effort to make the season a special and memorable time for us and our loved ones is a good thing. However, God’s plan went so far beyond the baby in the manger and the celebration of Christ was never meant to stop after that one day. And perhaps therein lies the problem. As fickle beings we tend to suspend celebrating and adoring him once the big day has come and gone, the carols stop, and the decorations are put away. And then it becomes business as usual …at least until Easter.
It has always been God’s plan to send Jesus to redeem us from the power of sin and to thereby bring us into a deep and intimate relationship with himself. It has always been his plan that by believing in his Son, we would be rescued from Hell and carried, though dead to earthly existence, fully alive in Him into his eternal presence in Heaven. And even in the midst of intractable pain, suffering, and horrible tragedies that have no human explanation, the light of hope is able to penetrate our deepest darkness because of this much bigger plan of God. John 3:16 says that “God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only son, the whoever believes in him would not perish but have eternal life.” Romans 8 says that in Christ, there is nothing in this world or anything in creation can ever separate us from the Love of God.
So what would Christmas look like if we celebrated it in light of the truth of Jesus’ death and resurrection and began to embrace the full meaning of why God sent his Son instead of just stopping at the baby in the manger? What if celebrating the birth of Jesus only intensified our joy in his death and resurrection? And what if the celebration of his resurrection only intensified our excitement and anticipation of his second coming? Perhaps there would be less depression, disappointment, stress, and burn out during the Christmas season and even our giving would take on a new meaning. Maybe we would rest more in the peace of God spend less time stressing over worthless details, less money on things that break and decay, and spend more time loving and adoring our Lord and our families. Perhaps we would sing his praises more often instead of complaining and get together with family and loved ones more often just to celebrate Christ and each other regardless of whether the calendar says it is an official holiday or not. Maybe we would give inexpensive but thoughtful gifts from time to time just because. And perhaps we would become more mindful of those in need and begin performing some of those same deliberate acts of kindness that we feel so compelled to do at Christmas time at other times of the year as well. And although difficulties and tragedies will never cease as long as we are on this earth, maybe adopting this mindset would give us more of a sense of the presence of God during such times. If we truly begin to celebrate the birth of our savior in the full context of his death, resurrection and second coming perhaps there would be less confusion in the world as to what we believe and the true meaning of Christmas.
So perhaps the feeling of discontent and disappointment we so often feel following the holidays is actually godly discontentment and His way of telling saying, “Yes there is more to Christmas than this.” Celebrating Christ was never meant to last for just one day. Christmas and Easter were not meant to be celebrated in isolation as two separate observances, and we were never meant to be so locked into our earthly lives and bound to a dates on the calendar that we cease adoring Him and simply return to business as usual once these dates have come and gone. We would do well to listen and obey. Selah.