I'm not going to say that the events of my life this past year have caused Christmas to take on a new "meaning," because that is absurd. The "meaning" of Christmas cannot change, and never will change. However, the way we look at it, or the perspective with which we approach the holiday season can definitely change, and it truly has for me this year - mainly in 2 areas. The first area in which I have gained a new perspective, or have just become very much aware of, can be summed up in one word: Pain.
As a little kid growing up, and even to some degree right up until this year, Christmas day & the entire holiday season leading up to it was the absolute best time of the year. Hands down (well, except for the cold temps & all the snow). But I can still remember the anticipation & pure excitement as a young kid looking forward to Christmas - I always enjoyed helping decorate the tree with my own ornaments, there was significant time off from school, there was the wondering of what presents I might get that year...and the list goes on. Once I graduated from high school & moved away from home, the greatest part about the holiday season became the fact that it was at least the one time of year where I knew we would all be together as a family...the older you get, the less often that happens. Of course the fun of exchanging gifts still remains, but priorities change, and so does the appreciation of "family time." I just always viewed Christmas as...well, perfection. What could be better than guaranteed family time, a great meal where you always eat too much, opening gifts that you probably wouldn't buy for yourself, and watching others get excited over the presents you bought them? Oh - and Jesus is involved, too...because it's really about Him and everything. Right. (Sarcasm intended). But it was a perfect holiday - and how could anyone not look forward to it or get excited about it???
And then this year happened - heart-breaking, life-changing, faith-testing circumstances took place in the spring. And even though these events are technically becoming smaller in the rear-view mirror of life & time, it seems that the closer it gets to Christmas the more they are becoming magnified in my mind. Instead of anticipating the "perfection" of what Christmas used to be for me, I find myself dwelling on what's different, or missing from my life this year. Excitement has turned, at times, to dread. And because of this, I have become very much aware that the holiday season is undoubtedly the single hardest time of the calendar year for more people than we would probably even know, or would like to think about.
I'm sure there are countless people who feel a little sense of dread when the temperatures start to drop, the leaves start to fall off the trees, and Wal-Mart starts placing all the decorations on the shelves way too early. People who have been deeply wronged by a former spouse, people who haven't seen certain family members in years for one reason or another, people who are barely living paycheck-to-paycheck and don't have the money to buy their loved ones any kind of special Christmas gifts. There are people who don't even have a permanent home to put a Christmas tree in. And maybe the worst of all, there are parents who have lost children...to miscarriages, illness, or even disgusting acts of senseless violence like we all horrifically heard about this past week. Any one of these situations, and even many others, have permanently changed the perspective of the Christmas season for countless individuals from one of excitement, anticipation, and joy...to a time of year where pain, grief, and hurting are magnified. It's a revolving door that hits them in the back every single year.
In no way, shape, or form am I trying to downplay the reality or pain of any of the aforementioned situations by making my next statement(s)...because I fall into one of those categories for the first time this year. And the pain is very real. The dread is real. But I have to believe that a very large part of the cause for the heightened angst toward the holiday season, lies in what the focus of the Christmas holiday has become in our nation. It's all about being "happy," right? It's about spreading "Christmas cheer," it's all about the presents we receive (which is basically finding satisfaction in temporary, material things). Take a look at a portion from one of the most popular "Christmas" songs that we hear during the holidays. This is a perfect microcosm of why so many hurting people never look forward to the holiday:
It's the most wonderful time of the year;
With the kids jingle-belling
And everyone telling you 'be of good cheer'
It's the most wonderful time of the year
There'll be much mistletoe-ing
And hearts will be glowing
When loved ones are near
It's the most wonderful time of the year
- "Kids jingle-belling" - What about those who have lost a child? What about husbands & wives who aren't able to have children?
- "Much mistletoe-ing" - What about those who have broken marriages? What about widows or widowers? Someone who has just been through a really messy break-up?
- "When loved ones are near" - What about those who can't afford to travel to be with their family? Someone who is an outcast of their family, or all their family members are gone?
For far too many people, this is likely the most miserable time of the year. Even though these painful, unfortunate circumstances never really "go away," it seems that we are the most at war with these feelings & realities during the holidays - the time of year when we look around & everyone else appears to be so happy. But my heightened awareness of the amount of people in pain around the holidays has also caused me to have an even more heightened awareness of what Christmas is really about. And that also, can be summed up in one word: Peace.
You see, my previous view of "Christmas perfection" only included Christ as some sort of peripheral ingredient to the big picture. My happiness was rooted in the material things - the cool decorations, time off of school or work, giving & receiving gifts - and even spending time with family could be thrown in there as a material thing. The fact that Jesus was a part of it all just made it that much better. But in reality, Christ has never been just a part of the big picture - Instead, the entire picture is Christ. It's that humanity is sick with sin. Our world is cursed. We are all in pain because we have all experienced the affects of sin one way or another - whether by sins we ourselves or others have committed, or just by the effects of the fall (sickness, natural disasters, death, etc). But Jesus Christ - the Son of God, who is God - was really, literally born as a baby on this earth. He truly took on human flesh...so that He could live a perfect life, die for my sins in my place, and rise from the dead. Why? Well, not so that He could make my life easy. Not to make my life pain-free, or free of the trials or hard times. But He came to this earth to give me life. To give me hope. To give me peace.
- Isaiah 9:6 - "For unto us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon His shoulder, and His name shall be called: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace."
- Micah 5:2, 5 - "But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah ... from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days ... And He shall be their peace."
- Ephesians 2:13-14 - "...In Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace."
This doesn't mean that the pain will disappear. This also doesn't mean that feeling pain, sadness, or heartache is wrong. Jesus knows & understands our hurt - He died for the very sin that caused it. But it does mean that even though my painful circumstances might not change, my perspective of the holiday season can change & I can have peace in Christ in the midst of the pain in my life. So while there are countless people in our world who equate the Christmas season with pain, my prayer is that some will find that the holiday is infinitely more than a day of happiness, gift-giving, and family time; it's about the God of the universe stepping into our world as a peaceful baby - to offer us the only source of real peace. And that is what makes this the most wonderful time of the year!