Lights and bells, tinsel, toy soldiers and gingerbread cookies. Such is the magic of the holiday season. It is easy to sing “Joy to the World” when we get to celebrate Jesus’ birthday in the presence of decked-out trees, warm fireplaces and excited children.
But the very first Christmas was not so pleasant. Consider that Mary, still pregnant with child, had to run to Egypt as a refugee to escape Herod’s slaughter-every-firstborn policy. When it was finally safe to return home, she gave birth to her first son in a manger. It was no Rockdale Medical Center; there was no room service.
Jesus was born in a time of hardship and grief. Israel’s peasantry wondered if God was ever going to liberate them from the Romans and lead them into a new day of victorious blessing. Instead of gingerbread cookies, many of those Israelites feasted on “a bread of tears” (Ps. 80:5).
There are many people who can relate to the grief that pervaded that first Christmas season because of their own sense of loss during the holidays. Those who cannot celebrate Christmas with a loved one feel grief acutely.
Whenever I visit New York on Christmas, Grandpa is not around to sleep on the living room floor after the turkey dinner. Cousin Jim’s defeat in his battle against cancer means that his family cannot celebrate the season with their father and husband.
In Christmas, we find ourselves thick in grief, but rich in hope. Yes, Israel was filled with darkness and grief when Jesus was born. The manger is a stark reminder of that reality; however, Mary and Joseph clung to a hope that bore witness to a God that raises the lowly and feeds the hungry (Luke 1:46-55).
That first Christmas also lets us know that hope is not only reserved for individuals. Nations also grieve, and hope and healing can erupt on a national scale. The rancor found in our national dialogue, the endless wars in the Middle East, and vast economic peril embody our corporate grief and reveal the deep need for God’s mercy.
There is an old story about grief and hope from Eastern Europe. An orthodox monastery found itself within a dying community. There were no new recruits to sustain the monastery, and the number of monks eventually dwindled down to a half dozen or so.
In desperation, the abbot went to a local rabbi and asked him what needed to be done to save the monastery. The rabbi expressed that his synagogue was also struggling to stay vibrant. “The spirit has gone out of the people,” the rabbi said as he and the abbot wept together.
Before the abbot left, the rabbi told him that he should not lose hope and that there was a messiah in their midst. The abbot took this wisdom back to the monastery and shared the rabbi’s answer.
For the next month, every one of the monks was trying to unravel who among them was the mysterious messiah. They could not figure it out, so they simply treated each other as if they were all supposed to be the ones destined to save their little community.
Their compassion for one another grew so great and so contagious that the townspeople took notice. People started to come to the monastery to meet the monks and hear the Gospel. Soon, the monastery flourished and became a robust community of faith.
The first Christmas was a humble one, but in that makeshift nursery we recognize our deepest grief, engage the richness of God’s hope and potentially find healing for ourselves and our nation.