’Tis the season to ache.
At church on Sunday, a single guitarist stood on stage as my friend Christine sang a hauntingly beautiful version of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” I blinked away tears at the stunning honesty of a song that admits the desperation of hurting humanity.
This month, two of my friends miscarried babies they’d hoped to someday hold. Yesterday a church member popped by our house on a holiday errand and I remembered: this would be her first Christmas as a widow. As I type, headlines about a mass shooting in Southern California are scrolling across my computer screen. And I wonder if all of Paris, still reeling from recent terrorism, sighs sad at Christmas decor appearing and an Eiffel Tower twinkling like a giant tree beckoning mourners to somehow be merry.
In my own life, the glittery lights of holiday perfection have too often underlined the imperfection of my circumstances. The December I miscarried, I tucked presents under the tree before tucking my grief-stricken body under bed covers to weep. The year our adoption delayed, I stood in Target staring at Christmas pajamas our daughter wouldn’t come home in time to wear, wanting to scream in frustration over the taunting carols floating over clothing racks.
The sounds of my hardest Christmases — the laughter and carols and buzzing toys — have reverberated like the distorted, manufactured revelry of a carnival fun-house: warped and ironic, distant and disorienting. I’ve wanted the songs to stop insisting this is the “hap- happiest season of all.” My favorite carols tell the fuller truth of Christmas: the world long ached, and then a Savior was born. This world still aches — my friends ache, I ache, Paris, Syria, Nigeria, and Southern California ache — but the Savior will come once more in His resurrected might and restore all things.
That is the truth Christine sang through “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” The song evokes Old Testament images of God’s sinful but beloved people captured by enemy armies, living in exile and mourning, begging for a Savior to come. It is still our story today; grief floods the Earth, the sins of ourselves and of others enslave us, and God’s people cry out for the Savior they’d ignored in happier times. Christmas is not about enjoying Utopian circumstances; Christmas is where our despair is interrupted by the hope of Christ.
Christmas was always meant to arrive in a season of aching. The Messiah came for the hurting, the broken, the exiled, the ones who forgot to worship. It’s not the shopping or baking or decorating that prepares us for Christmas; it’s the sorrow. We prepare for Christmas when we grieve a world twisted into something it was never meant to be; we celebrate Christmas when we enjoy the hope of a Savior who will remake it all.
I spent too many holidays thinking we should stuff our sorrows into hiding in exchange for frame-worthy photos of false joy. Instead, it’s a season when we expose our griefs to the light of hope, basking in the true joy that our Savior will remake every affliction into something beautiful.
The first Christmas after my dad’s heart surgery and strokes, our family felt so grateful for another holiday with him. Daddy survived hell that year. We had much about our circumstances to celebrate. But we also celebrated in spite of our circumstances; Daddy’s body was now scarred and damaged and wracked with chronic pain. It still is. So we celebrate a Savior born to be near us in our ailments now, and promised to fully restore us later. Today, my dad hurts, but he rejoices. He has an eternity of health ahead of him. Even better, he has already begun an eternity with the God who rescues him.
December is not a month for pretending our lives are heavenly; it’s a month for celebrating the heavenly baby born into our brokenness, the One broken for us and resurrected to soon return and restore every broken thing.
God Himself entered into your sorrow! The pain you feel is not foreign to some distant god on a throne; He’s called Emmanuel — meaning God with us, in our suffering. He tasted death and swallowed hatred and touched disease and knew abandonment and wept on Earth. For you, he became a fragile infant, a rejected Savior, a murdered God. And when the weight of every perversion and decay in existence had done its worst to Christ, sealing Him dead in a tomb — He overcame it all.
Aching hearts can celebrate Christmas knowing this: the same enormous God who lovingly shrank to enter our sorrow will come once more to eradicate our sorrow. News of crashes and cancer and shootings fill us with a holy ache. They intensify our need for the joy of Christmas. Every heartache this season sends us to our knees in worship, thankful for the God who came into this mess of a world, and hastening His return and restoration.
The Eiffel Tower twinkles today like a Christmas tree in wounded Paris. It doesn’t ask anyone to pretend this broken world doesn’t hurt or that we don’t long for better. But it does point up. Every Christmas tree points up, so that the hurting do more than cry — we cry out to the Christ who already came to join our pain, and again will come to overthrow it.
We believe Jesus will right every wrong. And for that reason, though we weep, we also celebrate.