Christmas: Why celebrate in a suffering world?

Adapted from an article originally posted Advent, 2016...

As the year draws to a close, we find ourselves reflecting on what it held for us and for our world. Or, if you’re like me, you’ve been thinking a lot over the last few months about the state of your community and the state of your heart. I can’t turn on the tv, log onto social media, or stand in line at the grocery store without pictures of tragedy and anger and death screaming in my face. On a personal level, the year brought a broken friendship, conflict with someone I love, and my beloved grandmother’s quick decline. My friends experienced physical suffering, hurting marriages, and death. Our communities and country are divided in ways that feel irreparable. Innocent people around the world are being killed in horrendous acts of terror.

I am learning to walk the line of engaging suffering, fighting for my convictions, moving toward the hurting, but not becoming consumed by the hurt and pain that seems to be lurking behind every corner. So when I hear suggestions that we hold back on the merriment of Christmas, it kind of makes sense. How can we gorge ourselves with holiday ham, spend thousands of dollars on gifts, and settle back on our first-world couches to watch football when there is so much pain and sadness around us? Isn’t it a gross turning-of-the-head, an intentional ignoring of our suffering brothers and sisters? Maybe instead of focusing on joy, we can focus on peace?

But as I mull that option around in my head, I can’t help but think that maybe we are called to something more. Let’s simply consider the implications of this being God’s story, and of the fact that he has been working redemption in his story since The Fall when he promised salvation in Genesis 3:

I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel.

If we believe—truly believe—that God has a good plan, even when we don’t understand, then we will believe that despite our pain and the incomprehensible suffering around us, this story is ultimately one of restoration. This is not a story of devastation or pain or suffering or evil, though it holds those elements; this is a story of redemption. This is God’s story!

Yet that’s exactly where things get sticky, right? Choosing to trust God’s goodness when the world sometimes seems like God has abandoned us. Will we have faith that he hasn’t? That he is indeed near to the brokenhearted?

Maybe that’s why we celebrate—to remind ourselves of the truth of the gospel. That God loves us. That God has promised that all of our hurt will someday become undone. That God’s own Son chose to suffer on this earth, even to the point of death, to save us from eternal death. That we have the hope of life in God’s presence forever and ever.

And I think that’s why, as we celebrate, we don’t forget the suffering of others’. In fact, our hearts only know how to celebrate well because of how deeply we have suffered. My children will be happy Christmas Day. They will sing carols and be grateful for friends and family and new toys. But their celebrating is shallow because they have not yet encountered the disparity between pain and hope; they haven’t tasted deliverance or the desperate need for it. Those of us who live in the night and long for deliverance will dance with the sweetest joy once redemption comes; so for now, we can celebrate with sadness but grieve with hope.

Furthermore, celebrating the birth of Christ counters the effects of the Fall and the pain, brokenness, and sadness that we encounter every day. Celebrating communicates that we have hope in something bigger than the deepest of sorrows. The deeper our sorrow now, the greater our celebrating will be!

We don’t celebrate because the year has gone our way or because we got a promotion and raise or because our candidate was elected or because the rate of violence and disease in our world is down. Our celebrations can’t be based on our station, class, or belongings—we celebrate based on our gifts from God: our identity as God’s children and his promises to us that can never be broken. We celebrate in anticipation of brokenness becoming untrue—the promise of ultimate redemption. And what could be merrier than that celebration?

So let us be merry, and let us pray that the reason for our merriment instills hope and joy in others. And let us pray that Jesus comes soon.

Merry Christmas!