HOPE IN HOLIDAY SORROW
by Mike Sorenson [download printable PDF version]
“He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering…”
Despite the glut of songs, gifts and smiling faces, the Christmas season is not always a joyful one. For me and my family, this one has been colored largely by coping with the death of my beloved grandmother, Dixie. The loss of her feisty spirit, witty comments, and loving heart leaves a void in all of our lives as we celebrate the holiday. For those of us who have experienced loss or other tragedies during the Christmas season, the hope and joy of everyone else can make the pain that much deeper. We are told that there is no place like home for the holidays, but it loses some of its luster when we have to return there for a funeral of someone we love. The sugary sweetness of the signs and songs at best seem fake and shallow during a dark season. At worst, they can seem to be taunting those who do not feel so festive. So, what does Christmas mean to those of us experiencing grief? Can we still find hope and joy in this season, even if it has been marred by tragedy? I think we can, but it is not through some sort of blind denial to the truth of our suffering. The story of Christmas itself is steeped in trying and difficult circumstances and peppered with grief. It is there that we can find a hope that speaks to our most trying of times, offering a hope that can sustain us through anything.
When God chose to walk the earth with us, He did not enter with great fanfare and plush accommodations. Jesus was born in a feeding trough to a poor Jewish teenage mother and a father who had to accept on faith that his new bride was indeed pregnant by a miracle from God. The king felt so threatened by his birth that he attempted to kill every baby that fit his profile of age and location. It is no surprise the magi brought gifts for the Christ child. Mary and Joseph probably needed those gifts just to sustain themselves through their hasty flight to Egypt. The first Christmas was a beautiful thing, but not because of comfortable environments, monetary success, or the surrounding of loving family. God did not aim for superficial cures when he sent Jesus to earth. The beauty of the first Christmas is that the God who reigns as the Creator and Sustainer of the universe chose to subject himself to the same struggles and suffering that we endure so regularly. He did not choose to offer platitudes from afar on a lofty perch. He did not merely reassure us of his concern for our plight. He entered into our pain and experienced it for Himself.
It may seem confusing that the Lord of the universe would need to go through such difficult circumstances in order to fulfill His purposes. However, the author of Hebrews explains one of the reasons when he speaks of Jesus’ role as our permanent high priest. The difficult life our Messiah had to endure prepared Him to serve us continually before the Father, so that “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses” (Heb 4:15). Jesus was a son who “learned obedience from what he suffered” (Heb 5:8). It is this suffering that made Jesus perfect, not in the sense of being morally flawless, but in the sense of being perfectly prepared for the role He is to play in our lives. He is the mediator who can perfectly facilitate our relationship with the Father. He can do so because, while being fully God, He can also sympathize with the struggles and suffering we endure on this earth. He has done it. He has faced the physical pain, betrayal, grief, and despair that we suffer to bear in this life, yet He did so without giving in to it. We serve a Father who lives in heaven, where suffering does not exist and life is the way it was designed to be. This gives us hope of a future beyond the difficulties of this life. However, we also are able to depend on a Savior who has faithfully endured the worst that this life has to offer and is here to walk with us through it. This gives us encouragement and strength to remain on the path, despite its painful detours.
We are never promised a life free of pain and suffering, the kind of life portrayed on Christmas greeting cards and countless holiday movies. Coming home for the holidays can mean joyful times of catching up with family and friends, great meals and celebrating life. However, as I have seen this year, it can also mean a return to grieve the loss of someone you love, leaning on family for support and moving on with a new stage of life. In the first case, it is easy to see the joy of the Christmas season, so by all means soak up that time for all it is worth. However, do not let the commercialized version of Christmas rob you of its joy in the times of suffering. There is so much hope, encouragement, love and sacrifice in the story of Christmas that is needed far more when we face a truly difficult Christmas season. We have a mighty God who is loving and compassionate, waiting to pick us up in the midst of our despair. He knows the pain this life can bring because He chose to endure it Himself. If you have suffered through this holiday season, do not suffer alone. There is One who knows your pain and wants to be there for you in it. We celebrate His birth this season as the ultimate gift, even more so in times where we are able to see how much we really need Him.