I feel like there should be a name for that indescribable feeling at Christmas. That bittersweet mix of jubilation and unrest. The hope of promises fulfilled and the unfulfilled yearning for more. We sing of peace on earth but often feel our deepest pains more acutely.
Sometimes you face Christmas holding hope and joy in one hand and grief and sorrow in the other. Grief takes on a new form during holidays. Loss seems greater. Pain seems louder. But joy takes on a new form, too. Surrounded by the glittery lights and wrapped packages, our hearts are often turned to what we are really thankful for. The excess somehow points its way back to the roots.
I think that first Christmas was the epitome of that indescribable feeling. Such deep sorrow, such deep joy. If you are struggling this year holding space for both extremes, you are in good company. If your grief seems to overshadow your joy, or your celebrations dim in light of your loss, maybe you’re even closer to the whole point of this celebration anyway.
We sing “all is calm, all is bright,” but those aren’t words I would necessarily assign to that first Christmas. I don’t think that first Christmas was perfect. It wasn’t magical and glittery and full of cheer. I don’t think Michael Buble was sitting outside the stable doors crooning, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” I don’t think Mary sipped on a decaf white peppermint mocha out of a red cup between pain-free contractions. I kind of doubt Joseph had the perfect gift for Mary wrapped in elegant wrapping paper and tied with a bow just sitting next to the horse trough. I don’t think all was calm. Or bright.
Jesus, perfection Himself, didn’t come to the world wrapped in perfection. He didn’t just appear, glowing and bright and saturating everyone in peace.
No, He came to the world in a surge of pain. Mary, screaming and pushing. Joseph, sweating and praying. Jesus, wet and crying. When man fell and sin was introduced, God wrapped child-bearing in pain and sorrow. Did He look forward into time and see how great a sorrow Mary would experience when bringing forth His Son? Why did He choose such a vulnerable way to bring salvation to the world? Why did He choose pain? Surely He could have chosen a safer way. One without risks. Without stretching and ripping and pushing and agony.
Mary and Joseph were all alone in that stable. No one had room for them. No one included them. No one cared that she was in labor, that she held the key to their salvation.
Where were their family members? Everyone was traveling to Bethlehem with them. Wasn’t there anyone to reach out or give up their bed? Wasn’t there anyone to bring them a casserole or cut the cord or sweep out the stable?
No doctor. No epidural. No ice chips. No monitors checking the baby’s heart rate. No nurse instructing how to push. No family members pacing the halls. No bed. No crib. No comfort.
All wasn’t calm, and all wasn’t bright.
Mary had carried that glorious secret for nine months. She had suffered gossip and rumors and misunderstandings. She was kept at arm’s length by a new husband. She had to make a difficult trip carrying a full-term baby. She started contractions on a donkey. Labored in a stable. Birthed on straw and dirt.
If I were her, I would have imagined that the Savior’s birth would have immediately and visibly changed everything. I would have believed that the world would take notice. That all wounds would have been instantly mended. That life would become new.
And it did. But not in the way that changed their situation. Life was made new. The Life-Giver was wrapped in rags and lying in a manger probably still sticky from the horse feed. How do you reconcile that? How do you reconcile your greatest hopes and prayers – an entire nation’s greatest hopes and prayers for hundreds of years – arriving in the most helpless, vulnerable way? All alone?
Surely Joseph and Mary felt it. Surely the presence of God ushered into that room with the final push in a way that no one had yet experienced Him. Surely all their doubting was replaced with certainty. Surely they looked into the face of the Messiah and felt a peace indescribable.
But that overwhelming joy, that promise fulfilled, didn’t change their situation. The innkeeper didn’t suddenly come rushing out and make space for the newborn King. Mary still had to finish the birthing process. Her pain and bleeding and recovery didn’t stop. Their lowly surroundings and discomfort and danger on their lives weren’t immediately eased and comforted.
The nursery Mary had prepared at home lay empty while she struggled to find something to wrap her baby in not covered in hay. The moment all creation had been yearning for had passed, and who had noticed?
That first Christmas wasn’t "perfect."
It was lonely and dark. Cold and smelly. Loud and painful. Maybe disappointing. Probably confusing.
But the Promise was made flesh. They could now hold on to their hope with both hands.
Maybe your Christmas season isn’t perfect this year. Maybe you have worked to string the lights and bake the cookies and sing the songs, but your heart is carrying a hidden pain. Maybe someone is missing from the table this year. Maybe it doesn’t look like what you had hoped it would by now. Maybe you feel less than, ill-equipped, unworthy, broken, or doubtful. Maybe you are trying to reconcile the joy Christ brings and the sorrow brought by this world.
I can think of no better way to honor the King of Kings than to bring our broken pieces to Him.
This yearning that can’t be described? C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity wrote, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in the world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” This year, instead of allowing our hurts and wounds and doubt to drag us further from Him, let’s give it to Him. He’s not afraid of pain or of questions. He’s not afraid of doubts or loneliness. That’s how He chose to come to the world. He chose to come in pain and leave in pain. So why would we think He can’t handle ours?
Whatever it is you’re holding in your hands this season – grief, joy, sorrow, hopes, disappointments – the good news is that you don’t have to hold it alone. We yearn for Heaven while experiencing Heaven on earth. We can rejoice for the peace He brought while still fighting for that peace on earth. We can sing “Joy to the World” in a world filled with doubt and pain because both are true.
All may not be calm. But the beauty is that it doesn’t have to be.