Like many, I am a sucker for all the sentiment surrounding Christmas, especially when it feels more like a Christmastide in rural England than a tinsel-laden trip to the mall. Give me “The Holly and the Ivy” over “Jingle Bell Rock” any day. But whatever your cultural preferences, for most of us, the carols, the kids coming home, the decorations, and yes, even the presents given in love, do make it a wondrous time of the year.
And none of that is bad at all. There is something wonderful to be said for the general themes of cheer and peace that shine through, even in the most secular celebrations of Christmas. It is almost as if the good news of God becoming flesh cannot be wholly buried from view, however hard commercialism may try to redirect our affections. It is not for nothing that C.S. Lewis signaled the end of Narnia’s long winter by the coming of Father Christmas. Christmas means joy.
But Christmas is not joyous for everyone. For some, the Christmas season brings grief or stress or numbness, which no amount of eggnog or carol singing can overcome. Family tensions, tragic memories, personal sin or even the shortening of daylight hours can make Christmas one of the most difficult times of the year for many. “The Darkest Night of the Year” is the name of one Christmas album I own, and for good reason. Christmas Eve feels like that for many people, since the heaviness of the next day can bring depression rather than joy.
So, what do we do when we do not feel that Christmas joy, and in fact, dread the holidays? Believe it or not, this may actually be a good and biblical place for us to be, and I’ll give you three reasons why.
Seeing our need for Jesus
First, our struggle with the Christmas season is an opportunity to see our need for Jesus, to cry out to him in our weakness and time of need. We need his help to just make it through this holiday time, and so we cling to his promise to provide for us (Philippians 4:19). While others around us may not understand our sadness, Jesus does and promises to meet us in our place of weakness. As God told the apostle Paul when Paul pleaded for the thorn in his flesh to be removed, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9 ESV). Paul responds with this declaration of faith: “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (v. 9). So with us, if we struggle through the Christmas season, it is another chance for Christ to shine through us in our weakness, as he gives us more of his own patience, gentleness and endurance. Perhaps that is even better than infallibly feeling a Christmas cheer the whole time through.
The truth of what Christmas is all about
Second, and more importantly, a seasonal sadness calls us to place our faith in the objective truth of what Christmas is all about, rather than fleeting cultural dressings. Ultimately, Christmas celebrates the Incarnation, a historical fact that does not turn on Santa Claus, English boys’ choirs or mistletoe. If you do not gain pleasure from those holiday trappings, that is fine because nothing in the Scriptures require it. As Paul says in Romans 14:5, “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” After all, we don’t even know when exactly Jesus was born, so celebrating a particular day can hardly be commanded. The cultural adornments surrounding Christmas are extra, and whether you enjoy them or not, they have no power to save your soul.
So instead of focusing on those matters that weigh down your soul this time of year, why not focus on the good news itself? This is the way Paul puts it in Titus 3:3-7:
For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit,whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
Paul reminds us that despite our human sin and its malignant, depressive effect on this world, God our Savior appeared. God came to earth to make everything right again in his time. As we participate in that renewal by faith, we are regenerated and justified and declared sons and daughters of God all by virtue of what Jesus accomplished. It is all by pure grace. That is the whole point of Christmas, and it is something that is an accomplished historical fact. It is finished, no matter what kind of year we are having, no matter what kind of mood we are in.
So why not focus on that sure grace of the gospel rather than the hollow promise of cultural Christmas traditions? Sometimes these traditions are lovely and bring joy. Other times they fail to deliver. But either way, you are Christ’s and he is yours, all by grace. That is a true Christmas, one that will not fail.
Redemption was yet to come
Lastly, a lack of Christmas joy can remind us of what Simeon told Mary when she came to present her child Jesus at the temple in Luke 2. After declaring that Jesus would be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel,” Simeon then said to Mary, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel . . . and a sword will pierce through your own soul also” (vv. 32, 34–35) A sword would pierce her heart because the day would come when she would see her precious, divine child die in weakness and agony upon a cross. Ultimately, Christmas points us to the cross, the only way of redemption for this dark world. And so, joy comes by way of sadness, life by way of death. It is not altogether unfitting that some of us feel a Christmas sorrow as well as a Christmas joy. Perhaps that is what it means for us to bear witness to Christ in this time. Perhaps that will help us be sensitive to and minister to others whose souls need more than hot chocolate and shiny ribbons. It may allow us to point them to the “life of the world to come,” where every day is better than the best Christmas there ever was here on earth. Not because there are more presents or noise or food. But because in that world, love and joy are always in season and will wash over us anew each morn.