“What was Mom like at Christmas?”

It’s a strange question to ask your sisters, but it was my question, for my own good reasons. Permit me to explain.

Through a quirky set of circumstances my birth family had recently discovered me. As I was born in the USA and adopted shortly afterwards, I had no clue that most of my family was European. My adoption records had always been a tightly guarded secret.

After my European birth family found me, I soon learned my American birthmother’s name from an octogenarian Swiss aunt. From that point it didn’t take long to find several close family members in Michigan.

The occasion of my odd question about Mom and Christmas marked the second time I’d met with my two American sisters. My birthday was December 21 and I had long wondered what effect my birth had on my birthmom for all those subsequent Christmases—especially since she had to give me up when I was two days old.

My sisters looked at each other, eyes widening. “Yeahhhh,” one of them said, her voice drawn out in sudden recognition. “She kept really busy at Christmas. Every year!”

“She was compartmentalizing,” my other sister surmised. They’d never thought about why until now.

My birthmom had passed away years earlier. But every Christmas for most of my life I’d wondered how she might be feeling, wherever she was. She had to think about the baby she brought into the world years ago. I wanted her to know I was okay, and grateful for life. She could, perhaps, find some peace in her pain.

*

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” goes the song. But what if it isn’t? What if something collides with your life at Christmastime to trigger a depression, or raises your anxiety to a stroke-threatening level. What if the season leaves you longing for something undefinable? What then?

For many, Christmas is the most stressful time of the year. It packages all kinds of unrealistic expectations, triggers all sorts of buried memories we’d rather not deal with. And so we work harder at having fun. We buy more expensive gifts, bake more cookies, decorate more lavishly, travel to places more exotic. Anything to keep from living in the pain.

But sometimes the pain is where we need to go.

Easily overlooked in the Christmas story is all the pain that comes with it. The slaughter of the innocents doesn’t make for a pleasant Christmas card.1 No one sends seasons greetings that include Simeon’s prophetic words to Mary, “A sword will pierce your very soul.”2

The truth is that the first Christmas Baby was born to die. The pain was precisely where Jesus intended to go.

“I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn over what is going to happen to me,” Jesus told his disciples the night before he was killed. “You will grieve, but your grief will suddenly turn to wonderful joy.”

Intriguingly, Jesus compared this pain to childbirth. The disciples’ anguish would be “like a woman suffering the pains of labor. When her child is born, her anguish gives way to joy because she has brought a new baby into the world.” And so, speaking of his imminent death, Jesus told them, “You have sorrow now, but I will see you again; then you will rejoice, and no one can rob you of that joy.”3

Christmas joy gives way to Good Friday’s grief. But that, in turn, births a far greater joy. God has a uniquely divine way of turning crushing losses into unexpected wins.

*

Literally minutes after we had learned the name of my birthmother, my wife switched into detective mode. (She does that frighteningly well.) Leisa found all kinds of records about my birthmom, including—sadly—her obituary. That discovery is a story all its own.

Armed with the requisite information, Leisa contacted the adoption agency that handled my case and gave them the names of my birthparents. Once they learned that both parents were deceased, they could legally unseal my file and send it to us.

The package arrived in the mail on a Thursday in March. My wife called me as I was driving.

“She gave you a name,” Leisa said in a voice achingly soft with love and poignancy.

She gave me a name. Of course she did. I had to stop driving. There isn’t a word for my emotions then. Here was a completely new blend of joy and grief and gratitude, experienced all at once.

My name was simply this: Jon. Decades ago, on a cold northern evening just before Christmas, I had been born Jon Richardson. My birthmother had given me a name.

We don’t often think of it as such, but Jon by another spelling is a name crucial to the Christmas story. “His name,” wrote the speechless Zechariah of his newborn son, “is John.”4 John the Baptist would “prepare the people” for Jesus.5 Then, his mission on earth complete, the imprisoned John would be murdered due to the venomous wishes of Herod’s wife.6 That Herod would be Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great—who had killed the Bethlehem babies three decades earlier. So much pain connected to our joyous celebrations.

With all that pain, why does the real story of Christmas persist?

Because it’s the most essential part of our story. My personal history is a convoluted one. Perhaps yours too? All told, I have four Swiss sisters and three Swiss brothers, plus an American sister who died before I could meet her. Until recently I didn’t know they existed. But then, all of human history is convoluted. We’re a hot mess. Why should I be any exception?

Whether we admit it or not, the Christmas story is a happy intrusion into ours. Christmas extends a genuine promise given to us by a God well versed in our pain. He doesn’t avert his gaze from that pain; he steps into it in human form. But what exactly is the promise of the story of Jesus’s birth?

This Christmas Eve we’re expecting the arrival of our first grandchild. Another Christmas baby in the family. A great granddaughter born to the legacy of my wonderful mom and dad, but born also to my courageous birthmom. Without her, there’s no Quinnlee Rosalyn. This will even be a part of the legacy of my birthfather who wasn’t there for her. It all counts. God redeems it all.

Quinnlee will come into a world full of moods and memories sweet and sorrowful, joyful and sad. She will encounter sharp pain intertwined with exquisite beauty. She is inheriting a rich and convoluted history. How very human of us to bequeath her such a gift!

Regardless of what this life will throw at our granddaughter, she can anticipate an even richer and more fulfilling future. We can too. This is the promise of Christmas:

“For a child is born to us,
a son is given to us.
The government will rest on his shoulders.
And he will be called:
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His government and its peace
will never end.
He will rule with fairness and justice from the throne of his ancestor David
for all eternity.”7

That’s the panoramic view of the Christmas story, and it’s still unfolding. No wonder the season evokes a certain moodiness in us.

How like God to step into our pain with us. How like him to give us the hope of a coming reign of peace, fairness, and justice—a future that brings complete restoration to our Father.

—Tim Gustafson

Matthew 2:16–18 nlt
Luke 2:35
John 16:20–22
Luke 1:63
Luke 1:17
Matthew 14:6–12
Isaiah 9:6–7

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