Christmas season has always been my favorite time of year. I love the food, the carols, the parties, and the giving of gifts. I love the focus on the incarnation of Christ. I love the bright lights and hues of green, silver, and red. And I will even admit that I love a good, cheesy Hallmark movie. Christmas makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
Until one year, when it didn’t.
I had been married a little more than a year when my first dark Christmas hit. I had every reason to think I would be bursting out of my normal clothes and growing a little baby. But I wasn’t. There were no food aversions, no bouts of nausea, and no need for stretchy pants. The baby inside me had stopped growing weeks before. I was devastated. I felt little Christmas joy that year; there was only Christmas ache and a longing for what might have been. It wasn’t my last sad Christmas, as we waited for God to provide us with children. What was once such a happy family time for me, suddenly became a stinging reminder of the very thing I wanted most but still lacked—a family filled with children of my own.
Whenever we talk about Christmas we think about happy, joyous times, and that is most certainly the case for many. In the years since our first loss, we’ve had Christmases of joy and Christmases of sorrow. We know the feelings of both. But for others, Christmas can carry a dark cloud of sadness, a sadness that never seems to let up and is only exacerbated by the happiness swirling around you. For some, Christmas is a reminder of the darkness of painful circumstances. It carries no tidings of great joy. Maybe you are facing your first Christmas without your spouse or parents. Maybe you are reminded every Christmas season of your longings for a spouse. The loneliness can make celebrating the holidays too much to bear. Maybe your table is missing a beloved child who is wayward, and things never seem the same without him. Maybe your parents are divorced and you shuffle between two houses on Christmas day, while your friends spend family time together. Christmas feels isolating and meaningless when all is not as it should be.
Whatever darkness you are facing this Christmas, know this: with all of the songs and festivities that point to good cheer and great joy, Christmas recalls darkness unlike any we will ever experience, but a darkness that brought light into a fallen world.
Mary’s Soul-Piercing Pain
While Christmas is about the dawning of great joy in the coming of our Savior, it also foreshadows the darkness of his crucifixion. Simeon told Mary of her son's purpose, that a sword would pierce her own soul (Luke 2:35). Mary, the woman whose heart warmed for her son with every kick in the womb. Mary, the woman who nursed and diapered the very Son of God. Mary, the woman who loved and raised her son like any other mother would do. And while he was no ordinary son, he was still her son. Bearing the Son of God did not make her numb to the often painful realities of motherhood, and her pain would be excruciating. No earthly person felt the weight of Christ's purpose like she did. While many were rejoicing at his coming, she would one day face the agonizing grief of watching her son suffer on the cross for her sins and our sins.
It’s easy to idolize Mary as a super-human vessel, ready to do whatever was asked of her. While she was certainly godly, she was still human. She was still a mother. This is what Simeon is getting at in his prophecy. With the atonement for our sins came the motherly pain of Mary. As she stared at that little baby in the manger, she may not have fully understood all that was going to take place, but God the Father did. The birth of our Savior carried an ominous shadow of the darkness to come.
God’s Chosen Pain
Mary may not have fully understood what Jesus was sent to do, but God the Father knew of this imminent grief and ordained it to be (Isa. 53:10). Jesus knew what was expected of him, and he agonized over the grief and suffering waiting for him at Calvary (Luke 22:39-46). With every shepherd’s praise and magi’s gift, the Father knew that the perfect fellowship would soon be momentarily broken for sin. In her book When God Weeps: Why Our Sufferings Matter to the Almighty, Joni Eareckson Tada wrote of the Father and the Son’s grief at the cross:
The Father watches as his heart’s treasure, the mirror-image of himself, sinks drowning into raw, liquid sin. Jehovah’s stored rage against humankind from every century explodes in a single direction. “Father! Father! Why have you forsaken me?!” But heaven stops its ears. The Son stares up at the One who cannot, who will not, reach down in reply. The Trinity had planned it. The Son endured it. The Spirit enabled him. The Father rejected the Son whom he loved. Jesus, the God-man from Nazareth, perished. The Father accepted his sacrifice for sin and was satisfied. The Rescue was accomplished. God set down his saw. This is who asks us to trust him when he calls on us to suffer.
With the joy over this little baby in the manger came the promised reality that the joy would soon turn to momentary grief. We have a perfect heavenly Father who knows what it means to grieve over loss. The darkness of our Christmas is not foreign to this God. He is not aloof. He is present with us, because he knows us deeply and walks with us in our pain. He has endured deep pain, too.
When we think about Christmas and are heartbroken to face another holiday with tears, we have hope. While Mary faced heart-piercing grief as she birthed her son, this grief was for the good of us all. While God the Son suffered at the crucifixion, by this suffering we are healed (Isa. 53:5), and he is a great high priest who can sympathize with our sufferings (Heb. 4:15).
Whatever darkness you face this Christmas, it is not the final word in your life. It may be lifelong. It may feel like it will never let up. It may threaten to undo you at times. And it is real. But we can grieve this holiday with hope that one day the baby who came in a manger will wipe every tear from our eyes and make his blessings flow for us forever (Rev. 21:4). The darkness that hovered over his cradle did not win. And it won’t win over us either.