At Christmas, the old song plays with joyous vigor (most preferably sung by Andy Williams): "It's the most wonderful time of the year!" And for many, that's true. Not only is there the nostalgia of warm, fire-crackling, marshmallow hot chocolate-filled snowy days, but the paramount celebration of God becoming Man for our salvation.
Yet for many, it is the most sorrowful time of the year. Whether childhood dreams were shattered by the cold facts of family brokenness, celebrations long-tinged with the ravages of alcoholism, or seasonal-affective depression hitting hard once again, for person after person, Christmastime opens fresh wounds. Perhaps it is the sting of death, leaving a wake of loneliness and sorrow at a time when family gathers. And in the Church, it can feel as though there's no place for suffering at the celebration of the Savior's Birth.
Our church - as all churches - is filled with both zealous Christmas celebrants, and those whose Christmas wish is to endure another year's festivities.
As one of the first-order celebrants, may I just say in plain words: Christmas makes space for all at Christ's Table - the singers and the sorrowers.
The last stop of the Christmas Story for most is the visit of the Magi, which took place up to two years after the birth of Christ (between 6-4 BC). However, the Christmas Story continues, casting a dark backdrop against which the Light of Christ shines:
"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 is heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.'" Matthew 2:16-18
The Christmas Story has some rather dark elements to it, such as the fact that an entire village's young mothers spent Christmas weeping because their infant and toddler sons were murdered by the State that God appointed for their protection (Psalm 82).
Yes, theologically-speaking, there is space for sadness at Christmastime. It does no good to say to the bereaved of Bethlehem (or Yakima):
"Cheer up! It's Christmas, don't you know?"
"Yes," they replied. "That's why we're weeping."
So at Christmastime, let's resolve to continue the ministry of comfort entrusted to us through the Gospel (2 Corinthians 1:3-5).
But the ministry of comfort does not leave depression alone, as if to make space for darkness only to give it the final word. No - the same Christ Who escaped death at the hands of Herod as a baby went on to suffer a tortuous Death under the reign of another Herod, that the final word may be:
"'Behold, the dwelling place [Tabernacle] of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be His people, and God Himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.' And He Who was seated on the Throne said, 'Behold, I am making all things new.'" Revelation 21:3-5a
And how is this too-good-to-be-true news actually true?
BECAUSE AT CHRISTMASTIME, GOD MADE HIS DWELLING PLACE WITH MAN. IN THE MIDST OF THE DARKNESS, GOD SHINES LIGHT.
"The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.... And the Word became flesh and dwelt [tabernacled] among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth." John 1:5, 14
Whether celebrant or sorrower, please remember that while Christmas has a dark side, it is not the winning side. After the weeping comes the wiping of the tears. The Bethlehem boys died while Mary's Boy escaped, that He might die at the appointed time, that Death may be no more. This is the poetry of Christmas, and in its lines - in the midst of darkness - we see HOPE.
WE'LL TAKE A CUP OF KINDNESS YET: ALL GLORY BE TO CHRIST.