Written by Brenna Case
Two years ago I flipped on NPR while I was driving south from Maine. It was a bright and snowy afternoon, and callers were phoning in to say how shocked they were—all their thoughts and prayers and condolences went out to the families. Families of who? What happened? I listened to caller after caller, until the host came on to recap the story: twenty first-graders dead in a school shooting in Sandy Hook, Connecticut.
…But it’s Christmas. But why, why, why does God let awful things happen in December? What will happen to the presents those parents have already bought for their children? And what about people who are going through fresh divorces, new illnesses, jailings, poverty—what about loneliness? Even in my own experience, Christmas isn’t always the cheerful, cozy Hallmark-card affair I expect it to be. There’s clinical depression and anxiety in my family, and those things are often aggravated by a season where there’s a mad rush to make everything lovely, merry, peaceful and perfect.
Somewhere along the line, we mistook ‘happy holidays’ for joy. We got it into our heads that if Christmas feels like anything less than the most wonderful time of the year, it isn’t worth having. But that’s not how it works. Real, God-gifted joy doesn’t mean that Everything Is Okay. After all, everything was most definitely NOT okay at the first Christmas. There’s the part of the nativity story where Jesus and his family flee to Egypt because Herod is killing all the infants in Bethlehem—and we don’t know what to do with it. How does a massacre of innocents fit with ‘joy to the world’ and ‘peace on earth?’ So we gloss over it, because we think that if we really want to feel joy at Christmas, we have to protect the story from all the dark and scary and awful things about the world in which it happened.
But I think this cheapens the promise of Emmanuel. The real joy in Christmas is that the Light is coming to inhabit the darkness with us. God understands our pain, because he has lived it himself. He was born into a broken time and place where children were senselessly killed. For thirty-three years he walked around in our fallen world, encountering sickness, hatred, and violence. He wept for Jerusalem. He suffered and died for all of us. And he told us over and over again that blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
So if you’re grieving this Christmas, take heart. Joy and sorrow are not mutually exclusive things. God has a plan, begun at the nativity, to heal our hurts and rescue us from the darkness. He has overcome the world, and someday he will wipe the tears from every eye. But in the meantime, before all of this comes to pass, Emmanuel sees our grief, and he grieves with us.