There’s a 50/50 chance that upon reading the title of this post, a corner of your upper lip curled and you immediately set about performing your best Elvis impersonation. We all do it; just admit it and move on. It’s such a novelty of a song, because it stands in such stark contrast to most of our favorite Christmas music. After all, Christmas is the “holly jolly” holiday where everything is merry and bright, and along comes this crooner lamenting the absence of a girl at Christmastime. How does that jibe with a greeting such as “Merry Christmas!” which is delivered with an exclamation and ear-to-ear smile to ensure all that fruit-caked fueled merriment translates to its recipient? To some people, that is the "spirit" of Christmas: to be jolly at all times.
But, sometimes, if we're being honest, it's just hard to manufacture that level of joy, even during Christmas. But the truth is this: you don’t have to.
Read with me, if you will, from Ecclesiastes 3:
1 For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
2 a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
3 a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
4 a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
5 a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
6 a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
7 a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
8 a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.
All these things are true, and even though Christmas is our jolliest of holidays, it can still be "blue" for some. Even the great marketing machine of American capitalism fails to overcome the complexities and vagaries of life that cast long, deep shadows. Not even Mary and Joseph could escape them. I often times have issues reconciling the "merry and bright" of Christmas when you consider how truly dark and tragic the Christmas story is that we read about in Luke 2.
To start, the sinfulness and wickedness of man had already set in, and there would never be enough mortal blood to atone for our offenses; we stood condemned. At the same time, you have a humble carpenter and his new wife, Mary, whom God hand-picked to be the earthly parents of his dearly beloved Son, Jesus. So, you have Joe the Carpenter who just finds out his wife is pregnant and she claims it was the work of the Holy Spirit, and then things get really wild when an angel of the Lord comes to Joseph and corroborates her claim. This isn't how most people envision entering parenthood. Oh, and he gets the added bonus of traveling with a very pregnant wife to Bethlehem –the city of his birth– to take part in a census.
When he gets to Bethlehem, he finds out there are zero vacancies available. Out of necessity, they get to stay in a stable, with animals. The story gets better when Mary goes into labor... in a stable, with animals. But, we're not done, because God drops a star in the sky and the 3 magi who see it come to Jerusalem and run straight to Herod the Great's palace asking to see the newborn king of the Jews. Herod, completely paranoid and not of sound mind, asks them to go and find this king of the Jews and report back to him so he can "go and worship him" as well. All along, Herod really just wanted to seize and kill this baby he saw as a threat. Later on, the magi are visited in a dream and told of Herod's plan, so they go and greet the newborn King, and then they split. Meanwhile, another angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream and tells him of Herod's plan. The angel instructs Joseph to take Mary and Jesus and flee to Egypt until Herod eventually dies. When Herod gets word of this, he loses it and orders all the male children in Bethlehem ages 2 and under to be killed. So Joseph, Mary, and Jesus flee for their lives to Egypt to wait for Herod to die, so they can eventually return home.
Traditionally, Herod's truly heinous act has been referred to as the "massacre of the innocents." It's a horrible tragedy, and it's a part of the Christmas story. Not exactly Precious Moments or the feel-good message we're peddled by grinny TV preachers. But the context of Jesus' birth reminds us that tragedy and pain are part of the human experience, regardless of the holiday marked on our calendars.
And now that I've thrown water on the wonderfully crackling fire of the Christmas hearth and overturned the bucket of roasting chestnuts, we can move on.
It is true for all of us that an unshakable sense of sadness, tragedy, grief, loss, or pain will dot our lives, and we simply cannot wave those seasons away with a smile or fun decorations simply because it's Christmas and "that's what we do." Sometimes those seasons mean tears, heartache, reflection, or even time spent on our knees pleading for the God of the universe to give us just a sliver of comfort in our affliction.
This is a really sensitive topic to broach, because on the one hand you want to tell people who are hurting that it's okay to hurt and to grieve and to take that time, but you also want to encourage them to work through their pain and grief in healthy ways and to fix their eyes on the eternal hope we have in Christ. It's okay to not be okay, but we've been given a hope that is imperishable, and this gives us hope beyond the grief and the pain we experience. As I was thinking about how I wanted to unpack this thought, practically speaking, I came across a quote attributed to Elizabeth I (I'm cynical by nature and therefore I doubt the veracity of that attribution because the internet loves misattribution). The quote itself is far more profound than anything I could pen. Elizabeth I allegedly said,
"Grief never ends, but it changes. It is a passage, not a place to stay. Grief is not a sign of weakness nor a lack of faith: it is the price of love."
There is some truth in this because we can go back to Ecclesiastes 3 and clearly see that for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. But we also see progression through those seasons as well. And these seasons are not the result of a lack of faith on our part; they're echos of the fall in the garden. The truth is the pain, the sorrow, and the brokenness we experience are all temporary. When God calls us home, He calls us into eternity where such things no longer bear any weight upon our souls. No more tears. No more heartache. No more loss. No more dread. No more loneliness. No more hurt. We're among all the saints gathered around the throne singing "Worthy is the lamb!" for all eternity.
Beyond the grief, yes, we really do have a reason to be filled with overwhelming joy at Christmastime. The Savior of the world has come. He set his eyes toward accomplishing the will of the Father, and he comes wrapped in flesh, a baby born to one day die as the propitiation for our sins. You, sinner, are not left to your own devices to save your own soul, thankfully. You have a perfect Savior who looks upon you in your present state and rescues you from a debt you could never pay with your flesh and blood offering. This gift is true for each of us. And this, dear friends, is the reason of all reasons to celebrate, even in our grief. But even in our grief, cling to the hope eternal we have in Christ Jesus.
To close, I just want to reiterate that it is okay to grieve during Christmastime. No one can demand you slap a smile on your face and feign that holly jolly spirit, nor should they. These seasons are a part of life, and as we see in Ecclesiastes, they are times that do not surprise God. He sees our brokenness and that of the world and allows us the space and time to experience them in accordance with his Word. If you are someone experiencing tragedy, upheaval, affliction, hunger, abuse, oppression, loneliness, anxiety, or depression, please know that we –the church body– see you, are with you, and wish to bear in your burdens and to lift you up in love. And, please, seek out your brothers and sisters in Christ for it is our biblical command to care for each other well. Christ has loved us so well and it honors him when we likewise love each other in the same manner.
I want to leave you with this wonderful song “Is He Worthy?” by Andrew Peterson. It captures so beautifully the deep sense of brokenness and grief we all experience at various times in our lives, but it reminds us of the goodness and the worthiness of Christ, our great hope.