Impossible to miss in any mall, grocery store, elevator, or voice mail system, Christmas music is as ubiquitous as snow in Alaska. I have yet to walk into a store this Christmas season that wasn’t playing “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.” I’m sure you are familiar with the song and can hear the tune in your head: With kids jingle belling/and everyone telling you/”Be of good cheer,”/It’s the most wonderful time of the year. With this music all around me, I can’t help but begin to hum along, and feel uplifted as if it truly is the most wonderful time of the year.
And yet, for many individuals, Christmas is anything but wonderful. In fact, the joviality, décor, and the music simply strike dissonant chords because of the memories, emotions, and experiences associated with this season. Families in Sandyhook, Connecticut and Arapahoe County Colorado in the United States feel the emptiness of loss, the hemorrhage of violence, and the undertow of grief as a result of two random shooters. I suspect this will mark their Christmas seasons for the rest of their lives. There are many who also grieve the loss of a loved one—not necessarily from armed violence—but from the violence of a body turned against itself through cancer or some other debilitating or destructive disease. For them, Christmas reminds them of yet another empty chair. Others experience joblessness or underemployment, numbing loneliness, disappointed expectations, ruptured relationships, and rejection that twist and distort the joy of the season into a garish spectacle. Instead of uplifting them in celebration, the most wonderful time of the year seems a cruel mockery.
For all of these, and many others, the Christmas season seems more like the opening verse of Christina Rossetti’s haunting Christmas hymn, “In the Bleak Midwinter.”
In the bleak midwinter, frost wind made moan,
earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone.
All the excitement, anticipation, and beauty of the season can easily be frozen by pain, disappointment and grief; instead of singing songs of joy, a bitter moan emanates like the cold, frost-bitten wind.
Into this world—the world of the bleak midwinter—God arrived. Not sheltered from grief or pain, God descended into a world where poverty, violence, and grief were a daily part of God’s human existence in the person of Jesus. Joseph and Mary, barely teenagers, were poor, and Mary gave birth to the Messiah in a dirty barn. Herod the Great used his power to slaughter all the male children who were in Bethlehem under the age of two. Shepherds slept on grassy hills, their nomadic home. Even in Jesus’s public ministry, his cousin, John the Baptist, would be beheaded. Jesus would experience rejection and eventually die a criminal’s death, with only a few, grieving women remaining at his side. The old hymn, “Out of the Ivory Palaces” said it well:
Out of the ivory palaces, into a world of woe,
Only His great, eternal love, made my Savior go.
Into this world—our world of bleak midwinter—God arrives. God arrives in the midst of pain and suffering, doubt and disappointment, longing and loneliness to make a home with us, to be alongside of us because of “great, eternal love.” The gospel of John tells us that God did not stay removed from us or from our sufferings, but that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). For those who find the Christmas season far from the “most wonderful time of the year,” Immanuel, God with us, comes to be our consolation.
And those who celebrate this season as the most wonderful time of the year can demonstrate its beauty, joy, and celebration by reaching out to those in bleak midwinter, doing our part, giving our all, sharing our hearts.
Margaret Manning is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Seattle, Washington