Christmas is cancelled, so the headlines go.
Last year I wrote a post called If your Christmas isn’t Instagram ready. On many other Christmases I have posted blogs about Christmas in hospital, in a sick bed, Christmas steeped in disappointment. All of these posts have something in common, and that is a sense of looking on Christmas from the outside in. I searched beneath the tinsel and the carol singing, the tables laden with good food, the Christmas markets and the perfectly decorated homes; I searched for something deeper, because when I could not join into the surface things I needed something that would set me free from chains of both sickness and slavery to how things ‘should’ be.
This year, though, we’ve all ended up in a Christmas in captivity, some more extremely than others. After such a strange and unsettling year, we’d all hoped for some normality, for some way in which we could ease the tension with a bit of a knees up, a celebration, a chance to see family members we hadn’t seen for many months. But even before the new rules were announced yesterday, our Christmas celebrations were limited and many of us had already chosen to keep things as small as possible in order to seek the common good. I wrote here about my thinking on how we should seek to model ourselves on Jesus’ example of humility in these matters.
Today I know that many of you are desperate with disappointment. I know that you are sad, that you are angry, that you are fed up. Most of us are some or all of those things as we think about the next days and months. It’s difficult to look to hope when everything seems so hopeless, to catch glimpses of light when shadows lurk in corners.
I want to share a reminder today, for me as much as for you, and that’s a reminder of God’s upside-down hope. It’s a reminder that it’s not our circumstances that bring us peace, but our knowledge of the love of God and our choice to worship God through the pain. It might feel like we are taken captive at the moment, as if we are somehow caged into a Christmas we do not want, and it’s okay to admit that and to be honest about our thoughts. We must never fall into the trap of writing over our pain with platitudes or burying it with clichés. It’s good to think on words about how light will pierce the darkness and dawn will come, but sometimes we must live in the darkness for a while, and abide within it with a God who hurts with us, without rushing to the other side.
Paul was in captivity when he wrote his letter to the Philippians. Yet he wrote words that seem almost discordant when it comes to what he was going through. Rejoice in the Lord always, he said (v4), and then:
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.Philippians 4:6-7
It’s something we’ve probably heard a thousand times before. We mumble the words and forget to take time to think upon what they mean and where they are written from. Yet when we do they can seem new and fresh to our weary minds, written from pain and captivity, written from raw life experience. I wonder if today we need to meditate upon what these words might mean for us, in our own disappointment today. What does it mean to choose to rejoice, to pray with thanksgiving? What is the peace of God that transcends all understanding?
I feel a sickening disappointment year after year, building myself up to join into things and then falling at the last minute into illness. It often seems so much more stark at Christmas, when everyone else seems full of delight and I sit at the window looking in. (Social media doesn’t help – see the first post linked to on this one!) I know that this Christmas feels like this to many of you. Perhaps, as a friend put it the other day, it feels a little like Narnia, where it was always winter and never Christmas, and the people of Narnia were waiting in hopelessness for winter to pass. Perhaps this whole year has felt a little like that for you. In Reliant K’s beautiful song In Like a Lion (Always Winter, Never Christmas), the lyrics speak of a curse, with the characters wondering if it will ever be lifted. The very frozen land is held captive, along with us. But then it points to hope:
But Christmas isn’t something that can be taken captive. It isn’t something that can disappoint and hold a curse over our lives in and of itself. Christmas is imbued with the greatest hope of all, with the inexpressible joy of love come down. Christmas cannot be cancelled, because its essence stands outside the gates of time, and weaves its soothing love around us as we yield to its promises.
Christmas isn’t something that can be taken captive. It cannot hold a curse over our lives. It cannot be cancelled, because its essence stands outside the gates of time.
The heart of Christmas is love, and that’s why it hurts us so when we cannot see those we love in this season. But Christmas love is love that is more profound because it is love that carries us through, even when we are shrieking with sadness. It will carry us through this Christmas in a strange and distant land, because it is a love that transcends circumstances. It is a love that will carry us into joy when joy seems impossible, into hope when all seems lost, and into Christmas when winter seems to choke us in its frozen hold.
I’d like to leave you with the words of a poem I wrote about Christmas, from Treasure in Dark Places, and with a prayer that you may know this transcendent hope, streaming through your own darkness and lifting you in your disappointment. May you be filled to bursting with this love which originates from the very heart of God.
The love of Emmanuel. God with us.
JOY IN THE MORNING
A hark the herald in a weary cave
A midnight clear blinks through our fears
And all ye faithful come and praise
As a silent night is draped in light
A bleak midwinter awakened to spring
As shepherds hear angels from glory realms
On Christmas night the whole world sings
O come, O come, Immanuel
O little town, your story resounds
Through first nowells and merrily bells
Through a manger away and a shining new day
We salute the morn as the anthem swells
O see amid our winter pain
Amid our night where dread takes flight
What child is this, who rests our shame
Joy to the world in a brand-new name
A hark the herald in our weary souls
A midnight clear in our deepest fear
A little town of hallowed ground
And joy in the morning when you are here.