Christmas, as the song puts it, is supposed to be the ‘most wonderful time of the year’ but for many people, myself included, it can be actually one of the loneliest, depressing and most angst-ridden time of the year. The growing gap between our reality and our expectations for Christmas is fueled by saccharine sweet Hallmark cards, endless happy family holiday movies and highly curated social media feeds of family bliss in the festive season. It all just looks so wonderful, so perfect but so far from the reality that we are experiencing.
Christmas for many of us means having to spend time with family that we may not always get along with, or having to do a lot more entertaining or purchasing gifts that we may not have the money for. It also usually means we have to attend a myriad of end of year social events at which we have awkward conversations which include questions about our marital status or job or life events, none of which we really want to discuss. At the same time we are also taking stock of our own lives, and if it seems that not much has changed since last Christmas we can feel despondent or down that things are not moving at the speed we had hoped, or in fact with any speed at all. We still haven’t met the one, our siblings still don’t know the Lord, we still haven’t landed a new job and our parents’ marriage is still floundering, it can all feel a little like Groundhog Day or maybe groundhog year.
While there may be a lot of people out there living the joy of the perfect Christmas with the perfect family, this has not been my experience or the experience of so many people I know. The other day someone asked me if I was excited to go back to Australia for Christmas, I had to answer no, I was actually anxious. Our family challenges mean that Christmas is often a time of stress, arguments and ongoing bickering. There is far too little joy and far too much disappointment and anxiety. So, in preparation for this Christmas, I have been praying and asking God what can I do, how should I see Christmas? How can I find and bring joy in the Christmas season when joy seems pretty light on the ground?
God is really into details. I am not always so excited by them but the Lord is. He has amazingly intricate plans for us and ways to move His people into position so that we will be right where He wants us at exactly the right time, to the second. Too often we think that we are the ones who are engineering our paths, but the Bible says that while a man plans his way, the Lord directs our steps. We choose to do X or go to Y but all of our choices are made given certain constraints and circumstances. More often than not, God working out His plans in our lives can look like a whole bunch of really unfortunate or annoying or even depressing events. We don’t get into the university of our choice, a friend betrays us, our parents let us down, we still haven’t met our spouse yet or our job feels thankless and unrewarding. All of these things can seem like God is not in control, that He has forgotten us, that He has abandoned us to chance (if there is such a thing). Far from living the life we dreamed of we can often feel like we are living the exact opposite.
As I reflected on the Christmas story again (See Luke chapters one and two) I started to see that it also isn’t a story of the perfect family gathering taking place in the most ideal of circumstances. In fact it is quite the opposite. It begins with an unplanned pregnancy for Mary, who I imagine must have been pretty upset to learn she was pregnant right before her marriage without even having slept with Joseph. I think Joseph must have been pretty unhappy too when he found out the woman he was about to marry was pregnant and he knew that he definitely wasn’t the father. Even with a visit from an angel I suspect that he was still a little suspicious about what Mary had really been up to. After getting over the initial shock of the pregnancy and multiple visits from supernatural visits, we might expect that the rest would go quite smoothly, after all Mary was pregnant with the Son of God. But no this was not the case.
Out of nowhere the first census that the Roman Empire was announced along with the edict that everyone should go back to where they were born to be counted. So the happy and heavily pregnant couple now faced an unexpected trip to another part of the country at the last minute, far away from family and friends. I can only imagine how stressful that must have been, Mary must have been wondering who would assist her with the birth, who would help her after delivery and what if something happened on the way.
When they at last arrived in Bethlehem they discovered that for some reason there was absolutely no place for them to stay and then Mary started going into labor. At the last minute they were able to take refuge in place for animals, a stable, just in time for her to give birth with only Joseph to help her. It would have been dirty, uncomfortable and cold, the opposite of the Christmas’ we enjoy today. Then just when they might have finally gotten comfortable a whole bunch of strangers suddenly came to visit, some of whom were very rich. This is not as wonderful as it may first look as in Middle Eastern culture there is an imperative to entertain, to provide food and drinks for all visitors. At all major celebrations it is the obligation of the family celebrating to feed and entertain their guests. Mary and Joseph must have been scrambling around to provide something for all their visitors, shepherds and wise men alike. How they did all that with just the two of them and Mary just having given birth we will never know but we can be sure that it was not a peaceful time.
Then just when they thought they could go home and finally be back with their families, they are told, by another angel, that they have to go to Egypt and stay there until it is safe to return. Now they have to go to another country, to a place where people speak another language and where they likely knew no-one. They must have had questions about where would they stay, how would they live and how long would they be there. Another detour, another delay and I suspect disappointment that they could not return home.
I can imagine that at this stage they might have been really doubting whether this baby was the Son of God as the only thing they had experienced since his conception was hardship and much uncertainty. The more we consider the facts of the Christmas story and move away from idealized images of the birth of Christ, the more we see that His birth and all the circumstances surrounding help us make sense of our own troubles. Joseph and Mary were not to know that unless all the delays and detours took place Jesus would not have fulfilled the many prophecies about the Messiah’s birth in the Old Testament and that in fulfilling these He would lead first the Jews and then the Gentiles to himself. They did not know that God was actually determining their steps and leading them to the right place at the right time so He could keep His promise to send a savior, the Messiah who would save all mankind.
Jesus is the ultimate evidence that God keeps His promises. Not just to the Jewish people but to the whole earth. Not only did the birth, life and death of Jesus fulfill over 300 historical prophecies about Him, His arrival on this earth heralded the end of death and the beginning of a new era in which man was finally reconciled with God for the first time since the Fall. The birth of Jesus was indeed good tidings of great joy for all mankind. But it did not take place under easy circumstances or with family and friends gathered around a lovely meal.
The arrival of Jesus on earth marked the beginning of the end for the devil and I wonder if some of things that happened to Mary and Joseph were an attempt on his part to prevent the birth of Jesus or end his life soon after. I think that the devil wants people to find Christmas hard. He not only wants us to forget the reason for the season but he wants us to reject the season altogether. He wants us to give up on Christmas, to give up on gathering together and persevering in our relationships, especially with those closest to us. He wants us to lose sight of the wonder and love and joy that the arrival of Jesus brought for all mankind. He wants us to dread this time of the year as it marks a global celebration of his demise. In many places around the world we see Christmas under attack, we find Merry Christmas replaced with Happy Holidays, or Christmas minus Christ with Xmas, or people rejecting the holiday altogether because of the feelings of sadness or loneliness or anxiety that can accompany it.
This is precisely why we must, in the words of William Shakespeare, screw our courage to the sticking point, and follow the example of Mary and Joseph and determine that regardless of our circumstances we will persevere at Christmas. We decide to choose joy and love in the face of disappointment, delays and detours. We will stay in relationship with family because God loves them and Jesus came for them too. We will take a deep breath and say God I can’t do this alone but with you I can do all things, I can rejoice this Christmas, I can bring joy to others this Christmas. Even in my disappointment in how my circumstances are, I choose to believe that everything will all be ok and that in the end your love for me will be evident to all. I trust that one day I will see how your plans for me all fit together and just like the birth of Jesus I will see how all the things in my own life that did not make sense, that were so hard, so confusing, so sad, so hurtful, have miraculously come together in a beautiful tapestry that could not have been made any other way.
At Christmas we usually reflect on Jesus being God’s greatest gift to mankind and that is true, but more than that He is the long-awaited answer to the prayers of an entire nation, for a savior who would save them and save the earth. When we consider the Christmas story we can see that God’s plans are stopped by no-one and nothing. Everything that happened around the birth of Jesus happened right on time and exactly according to God’s plan.
The myriad of difficult circumstances surrounding the conception and birth of Jesus help us to understand that God’s plans cannot always be understood in a month or years or even decades but they will be revealed and they will be used for good, not only for us but for all we come into contact with. Our lives, like Joseph’s and Mary’s tell the story of God’s faithfulness, His care and His good plans for His children. When we persevere in spite of hardships we bring glory to Him and through surrendering our plans and timelines and expectations of how we think our lives should be, we allow God to work through us and in us, in ways that we could never have foretold and ways more wonderful than we could ever have imagined.
This Christmas be encouraged that if you are facing disappointment, delays or detours to unexpected and even maybe unwanted places know that you are in good company. Take heart that just as our Father was watching over and directing the steps of Mary and Joseph so too He is watching over you and He will bring you to the right place at the right time in the right way. Let us lean into Him this Christmas, take our strength from Him and as we persevere (see this blog post for more on this) then I believe we will experience a new revelation of Christmas that will bless us and those around us. I am praying for you all that this Christmas might be your best yet.
God Bless you and Merry Christmas!