All Christians know that Christmas is about Christ and are generally aware of the dangers of materialism. But even if we try to keep our festivities simple and focus on Christ instead of shopping, there are other things that can cloud our celebration of his birth. I have interviewed a few people and found three common obstacles: frustrated expectations, painful memories, and difficult relations.
Christmas is the season when many people in the world sing about a King they normally ignore or oppose. The enduring popularity of this feast among unbelievers can’t simply be attributed to commercialism. In fact, commercialism banks on the inborn and compelling human yearning for the tidings of comfort, joy, peace, and harmony that are tied to this day.
But these indelible ties to Christ are increasingly obliterated, and the world continues in the age-old illusion that comfort, joy, peace, and harmony can be achieved without him, or—at the most—using him as a good moral example or motivational speaker. Every year, many embark on a mission to make love, peace, and harmony reign in their families for at least one day, and advertisers promise their products will make this quest a reality. Even the more realistic TV shows predictably include a happy ending. The message is, “Stick it out. You can do it.”
The problem is, reality doesn’t always line up with our desires. Even if we manage to put up what we have envisioned as a perfect Christmas, we are often surprised to see how quickly our harmonious house of cards falls apart in the days to come. These feverish attempts with their related frustrations run high on the list of complaints of those who are disillusioned and even fearful of the Christmas season, wondering if their repeated failure of reaching their expectations shows there is something wrong with them.
There are other, deeper reasons that make the Christmas season difficult to face. For many, Christmas is not what it used to be. The death of a loved one is one of the hardest changes to face. Memories are often more painful than joyous, and many end up shying away from a holiday that seems to promise love and joy to all but them. They may attend family gatherings out of courtesy, enduring, once again, empty platitudes, pitiful looks, and awkward avoidance of distressing subjects, all deepening their feelings of loneliness.
As impossible as it may seem to a person who has just lost a loved one, eventually memories become less painful. But there is no timeline and expecting this to happen at a specific time can be in itself frustrating and create feelings of inadequacy. “Sometimes it helps to make sure that Dad is remembered,” a young lady told me. “For me, talking about him may be saddening but it is also healing and associates the good memories of him alive with the holiday instead of focusing on the fact and manner of his death.”
In the Bible, remembrance is a good thing. The Israelites raised frequent memorials, and the Lord instituted festivals and sacraments in memory of past mercies and signs of present and future blessings. For Christians, even painful memories are enveloped by thoughts of comfort, because they are never severed from God’s promises and his enduring sustenance. As an old gospel song used to say, “We have come this far by faith … He’s never failed us yet.”
The third complaint I heard has to do with the challenge of dealing with difficult relatives and uncomfortable conversations (that can easily become offensive). It’s a common situation because we live in a fallen world full of sinners like ourselves.
I have noticed two reactions. Some believe that family is important and must get together, even if the gatherings include difficult people. Others have decided that peace and harmony are best maintained by keeping a geographical distance, or that their children must be protected from negative influences. Each situation must be considered on its own merits. In any case, an uncomfortable reunion can be met more easily if we realize that we are all sinners and if we assume an attitude of service.
The Perfection of the Eternal Christ
Frustrated expectations, painful memories, and difficult relations can turn some of us into Scrooges. For Christians, they may validate the objections of some Reformers and Puritans against what they saw as a recycled pagan holiday. But whatever we think of Christmas and the way it is celebrated, we are still called to be a witness to the world, by joining it not in its cycle of unrealistic expectations and resulting frustrations, but in a celebration of the realities, many understand only in shadows.
And we can do it, not—like Scrooge—for fear of the future or remorse over the past, but out of the overwhelming sense of wonder and gratitude we are bound to feel when we hear the counterintuitive news of a God who was willing to share in our human nature and be abused in this fallen and sinful world, so that we may receive in full the joy, peace, and harmony we simultaneously desire and oppose.
“Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). Everything else is temporary, and constant change—as painful and uncomfortable as it may be—is to be expected as we continue to journey forward to our eternal Home. But Christ is sufficient to sustain us on our way, as we keep remembering and sharing—on Christmas and every day—his “tidings of comfort and joy.”