One of the more difficult parts of the holidays to navigate is the expectation to make happy memories and for things to be cheery. It doesn’t really make sense that a date on the calendar or a few weeks declared the “holiday season” would magically make things wonderfully happy, but for whatever reason we expect or hope for it which deepens the disappointment when things are not merry and bright— when instead of peace, there is strife in our family and hurting relationships. When there are unfulfilled secret hopes in our hearts or we are in the midst of grieving loss. When we’re burnt out from serving and maybe just tired from normal life and don’t feel particularly Christmas-y.
Personally, this year has been one with great joys and deep sorrows, and in light of this I am meditating on two prayers we can pray this Christmas as we face things we struggle to reconcile with the joyful celebration of Christ’s birth:
Jesus, this is why you came.
Jesus, come again soon.
My family knows that I have a thing against most Christmas music. Maybe it’s because of mental associations with cold weather, crowds smelling of melted snow and sweat (anyone who’s commuted on the MTA, you know what I’m talking about), and the stress of last minute gift-buying, but holiday music at the mall makes me feel anxious and annoyed. That said, some of my favorite songs are sung during advent because I love the theme of the hope we have in the fulfillment of long-awaited promises.
I love these songs for the same reason I cried like a baby during the The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe (movie) when one of the children, after hearing about the situation in Narnia, ask if there is any hope. Mr. Beaver says “There’s a right bit more than hope. Aslan…is on the move.” (Cue me crying like a little baby.) I love them because they capture so well both our despair apart from Christ and then the hope and joy that accompany his coming. Apart from the coming of Jesus as a little baby, we would have no hope and these songs capture the cries of a longing and desperate soul. This longing is expressed as together we sing, “O come, O come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appears”
The thousands of years of waiting for the promised seed of Abraham and descendent of David give context to the climactic joy of Christ’s birth. The disappointment and devastation for the nation as king after king failed to rule justly and bring mercy, the animal sacrifices that were an annual reminder of their inability to wash away sin, and now, at last! The people walking in darkness have seen a great light! After the night, at last a light has dawned (Isaiah 9:2). Elderly Anna and Simeon in the temple were a small reflection of this long wait. “And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.“ (Luke 2:38)
As the anticipation of receiving a desired gift heightens the joy of finally being able to open it, feeling in our hearts the wait in history and then the weight of our need for Christ enable us to rejoice in the news of his salvation. Thus, the truth of Jesus’ birth isn’t meant to bring a happy feeling that will temporarily distract us from real life. Rather, our joy is made full in seeing how he enters into our darkness and sorrow and reality. We see this in the birth narrative of Christ. The angel brings Mary great news of a wondrous miracle, but we can imagine that there must have been strains put on Mary and Joseph as not everyone would have believed their message from the angels. There is the trek to a crowded Bethlehem and the stress of labor, birth, and recovery. And in the wake of Magi traveling from a distant land, “a voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:17)
The world Jesus entered into was the real world, a broken, unwelcoming, dangerous, mourning place. Yet Jesus didn’t just come in spite of our reality. Our brokenness, sin, and suffering were precisely why he came. And rather than rob us from our ability to rejoice in his birth, our sadness and sorrows give the true context for his coming and deepen our capacity for joyful hope. If all was holly and jolly, peaceful and heavenly, we wouldn’t have needed him to come.
The hope of Christ’s birth intersects and breathes life into our brokenness this Christmas in countless ways. In our own struggles against sin and in seeing the less-than perfect relationships in our own families, we know he entered this world to walk perfectly for us even unto death and we have hope for change. In our depression and darkness, we know there is no place too dark for him for he willingly steps into our places of need. As we struggle to make sense of the terrible news of war and tragedy, we know his gospel of peace is meant for the world. To the lonely, he has shown himself to be Emmanuel, God with us. No one can say “God, you don’t understand,” because we have a high priest who was tried in every way as we are and is able to sympathize with us. He came to reconcile us to himself through his death so that he can be for us, and because we know that he is for us, nothing we go through is purposeless, nothing will be wasted. In this life we face darkness, but the way we do so is completely different because he has come. Fighting hopelessness and despair, in light of his coming we can pray, Jesus, this is why you came.
Not only do we have help and hope now, but Christ has come to make us right with him so that we can eagerly await his second coming with joy. The birth of Christ was just the dawning of the morning sun and we are awaiting the blazing glory of full day. The incarnation of Christ signaled the beginning of the end to the long wait for full restoration. Fun family times, laughter, and songs of praise reflect the joy of promises fulfilled – the appearance of the Messiah and the way of salvation made known to us in this first coming. Still on this side of his second coming, Christmases are not yet full of joy and only joy. We continue to wait for Christ to come to make all things right, to wipe away every tear, to silence all wars, to free us from our own soul’s struggle against sin. And as we are hopeful because he has come as a baby, we wait for him to keep his promise to come again as King. So we pray, Jesus, come again soon.
However you are feeling coming into Christmas day, know that Christ’s birth is for you. That the very things that make it difficult to feel like celebrating are the reasons why he came. He has come to free, redeem, comfort, and walk with you. Jesus came. And as the first Christmas has shown us that God makes good on his promises, know that one day he will come again and on that day your joy will no longer be mixed with sadness. Jesus is coming again.
Rejoice, Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee O Israel.