Chapter 2

When It Doesn't Feel Like Christmas

Something Different, Something Deeper

The message of Christmas is about hope. But sometimes “it doesn’t feel like Christmas.” It doesn’t feel hopeful. Sometimes life conspires to challenge the Christmas message of “good news of a great joy.”

Each culture has its own traditions surrounding Christmas. While many of these traditions have little to do with God entering our world, they have become so inextricably intertwined with our Christmas celebrations that it is difficult, if not impossible, for us to separate the truth of Christmas from the traditions we have grown up with. For example, in the West, Christmas has become a time of family celebration with food, presents, and parties. So when the painful reality of life interrupts our celebrations of the Christmas season, when we lose some of these traditional supports, we believe we cannot experience the spirit of Christmas. For years the Christmas spirit has meant an immersion in the festal garb of the season—the colors, lights, decorations, songs, presents, family get-togethers—and yes, the story of the Babe in the manger.

But the Christmas story, the real story, has become a sidelight to our celebration. It is important, but not absolutely essential. We could actually get through the season with great joy, celebration, and treasured memories without seriously considering the implications of the entrance of God into our world. A simple nod to “the reason behind the season” would suffice—even a brief one. Millions of Christians do it every year and appear none the worse for it.

But what happens when a broken family or the aching loss of a loved one or deteriorating health or fragmented and painful relationships conspire to wipe away our joy? At such times we begin to see how far we have strayed from the true message of this blessed season. What we need is something different, something deeper.

Author and speaker Jill Briscoe recalls being asked to speak to a church gathering in Croatia for two hundred newly arrived refugees. They were mostly women, because the men were either dead, or in camp, or fighting. That evening she told the refugees about Jesus, who as a baby became a refugee Himself. He was hunted by soldiers, and His parents had to flee to Egypt at night, leaving everything behind. Sensing that her audience was listening intently, she continued telling them about Jesus’ life, and when she got to the cross, she said, “He hung there naked, not like the pictures tell you.” At the end of the message, she said, “All these things have happened to you. You are homeless. You have had to flee. You have suffered unjustly. But you didn’t have a choice. He had a choice. He knew all this would happen to Him, but He still came.” Then she told them why. Many of the refugees knelt down, put their hands up, and wept. “He’s the only one who really understands,” she concluded.1

This is the part of the Christmas story that is often neglected. God had a choice, and He chose to become a vulnerable human child. He chose to come to earth and suffer and die. We can decorate His entrance into the world with festive angels and stars. But those decorations cannot mask the purpose of His entrance—to suffer and die for us.

The Christmas “Unpeace”

Ironically, in those times when it least feels like Christmas, it might be most like Christmas. Maybe hope, in the midst of strange, uncomfortable, and confusing circumstances, is the closest we can get to the true and original spirit of Christmas. Often, the lack of the internal peace we are desperately seeking nearly convinces us that God’s love for us—us personally—has waned. How can God truly love us when He allows such pain and suffering to enter our lives? But it was because of this very pain and suffering that God came in the first place.

In fact, it was into just such “unpeace” that our Lord arrived. As author Emmy Arnold writes,

How could God hate us, when He gives us what He, past all measure, loves? I proclaim to you great joy that shall come to all peoples—peace on earth! The true Christmas experience is to feel that this Christmas peace is the greater power; that even now on earth it overcomes all unpeace. That this peace shall come to all—that is the expectation and faith of Christmas. The Christmas Star in the night sky, the shining of the Christmas light in the night—all this is the sign that light breaks into the darkness. Though we see about us the darkness of unrest, of family discord, of class struggle, of competitive jealousy and of national hatred, the light shall shine and drive it out. Wherever the Christmas Child is born in a heart, wherever Jesus begins His earthly life anew—that is where the life of God’s love and of God’s peace dawns again.2

When all the things that spell security and comfort are removed, we become keenly aware of how much we needed God to enter our world. We can’t make heaven on earth, no matter how hard we try, no matter how much we decorate. Sin has affected and infected everything we touch. We needed to be rescued. We need a Savior.

We long for peace. Peace on earth, and peace in our hearts. This is what the original participants in the Christmas story were waiting and hoping for.

A powerful way to appreciate having a Savior is to imagine what it would be like not to have one. Imagine that your pain and suffering have no meaning. Your life is simply ruled by fate—and you are just unlucky. Wrongs will never be made right, truth is relative, and hope for a better world is just so much dreaming. Your silent suffering and hidden pain have no divine audience; they are yours to bear alone. There exists, quite simply, no hope beyond this life.

But we do have reason for rejoicing. A Savior was born to us, and our suffering touches His merciful and gracious heart. He was not only moved by our suffering; He came to join us in it. He lowered Himself to suffer what we suffer, to feel what we feel, to cry with us, hunger with us, thirst with us, and live with us. The Almighty God made Himself vulnerable to all the pain of human life.

One of my greatest joys is in knowing that there is a God and that He is righteous and loving. That this God loves me never ceases to amaze me. So my hope can shine through any pain, confusion, and suffering that comes my way, because I know my Savior cares for me. My hope cannot be quenched, because I know my God loves me even through suffering.

Christmas reminds us that we can put our hope in a sure thing—the love of God—demonstrated so beautifully on that wonderful day when He came forth into our world as a baby. Because of our despair, hopelessness, and helplessness He left His throne in heaven. This is the “good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (luke 2:10). This is the Christmas we can all celebrate, with or without family, friends, or familiarity. Christmas goes beyond trees, decorations, songs, and presents to speak to our true condition.

1 Jill Briscoe, “Keeping the Adventure in Ministry,” Leadership Journal (Summer 1996).

2 Emmy Arnold, “Christmas Joy,” When the Time Was Fulfilled (Farmington, Pa.: Plough, 1965).