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Celebrations in the Valley: Navigating Christmas with a Heavy Heart

The holiday season is fast approaching, although for many this year, it might be more fitting to say, it’s encroaching – impinging, intruding, barging in, imposing itself. After a year overrun with expansive sorrow, the thought of ‘Christmas cheer’ rings hollow. Even the message of the angel to a group of bewildered shepherds on a hill outside Bethlehem, “I bring you good news of great joy” (Lk 2:10), seems to promise more than we can believe possible.

Sorrow Upon Sorrow

We’ve navigated sorrowful times during this most recent circuit around the sun. Loved ones have slipped away from us or maybe it feels more like they’ve been ripped away. In grief, we cry, ’Gone too soon’, willfully blind to the theological error in the sentiment.

We’ve been crushingly stunned by impassioned responses to events outside of our control – the events alone have been hard, but the responses of those over us and those we love and share life with have, at times, been heart breaking. Brothers (and sisters) have faltered in their ability or even willingness to live together in unity (Ps 133:1).

Some have worked themselves to physiological burnout (I’ve had two nurses, in my tiny circle, tell me they recently lost a coworker to suicide brought on by the sheer weight of caring for others) while others languish in a vacuum of inactivity because their vocation has shrivelled away to nothing.

The vast majority of us have spent more time isolated in our homes than we could have dreamt possible. And maybe even, we’ve stopped caring. We find ourselves alone with the sorrows that the year has layered on. Alone can be lonely but the spaces between us have also served as an artificial buffer to some of the pains.

And now we come to the season of celebration, and wonder “How?”

Seeing with New Eyes

Many years ago, I faced this same question in a more personal and far less global season of suffering. I providentially stumbled on these words:

Christmas isn’t welcome when it glibly promises cozy togetherness and prepackaged joy that it can’t deliver. Parties and bright lights cannot dismiss the darkness of crisis, trauma, pain, and death. And yet God sent the Light of the World into such darkness. All around there was oppression, sickness, and suffering.

Christmas wasn’t welcomed then either. It was shunted into the dark corner of a dank stable. Yet the animals, along with the weary and wondering new mother and her husband, found they were not blinded by the light of His glory. He left His brilliance behind and came with a soft cry into the night. Only a lantern lit the face of God.

Had it not been for the angels and the star, no one would have guessed that God had come to earth . . . except for those who sensed the love glowing in that dark place. Christmas came amid pain and poverty, loss and loneliness.

When we can’t say “Merry Christmas,” perhaps we can whisper, “Welcome, Light of the World. Never has the light of Your presence been more needed. Shine softly in my darkness.”[1]

They were a critically vital and reorienting lifeline. My mind’s eye impulsively packages the original Christmas story in sweet sounding music and soft lighting. It was so helpful to be reminded that Mary and Joseph’s world was oppressive beyond anything I’m likely to ever know. Every day would have carried weight that made hope hard, which means that every day of Jesus’ life also did, which means that the hope he offers is hope for our hard times too.

The humility of His arrival – the profound subtlety of it – (Yes there were angels but their appearance to a few shepherds in little Bethlehem was no grand fanfare!), is a stark contrast to His magnificence. But it was His joy to enter our darkness (Heb 12:2). And it was the pattern of His entire life to willingly place Himself under the tyranny of both spiritual and earthly oppressors – and yet, never lose hope. Yes, He prayed with loud crying and tears (Heb 5:7) and then in a most profound demonstration of emotional composure and spiritual certainty, swiftly shut down all opposition to the imminent brutality. As at the first moment of incarnation, He demonstrated His power in masterful meekness.

When He said to those dear to Him, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world, you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33), He was speaking to people who were intimate with the sorrow of intensely oppressive suffering. In fact, in the same context, he told them that He was speaking to keep them from falling away knowing that in the near future, they would be put out of the synagogue and have their lives taken ‘in God’s service’ (John 16:1-2).

So, yes, Christmas is coming. Your temptation may be to sidestep it or to simply endure it. But might I suggest that instead, you turn your heart honestly to the darkness and remember that the Light has come for the very darkness through which you have been called to journey. The contemporary packaging that has become Christmas belies its true beauty. Invite Jesus to show you how His presence is the illumination that cuts through your darkness.

Questions for Reflection

  • Have you been floundering in the darkness? How can you move toward God for light for your journey? Is there someone you can turn to for help in this?
  • Where and how can you be an agent of God’s Light to others around you who are also experiencing a season of darkness? (Mt 5:16)

[1] Lenzkes, Susan, “When Life Takes What Matters”, Discovery House Publishers, Jan 1993

Also published at Biblical Counseling Coalition

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