The Christmases of my childhood were spectacular occasions. That’s because my father is a Christmas magician. Once the tree went up (always fresh, never fake), he twisted so many strings of lights throughout its branches that they looked like twinkling juniper berries. He had an HO-gauge model train that ran all around the living room, weaving in and out of sparkling white fabric and to-scale ceramic landmarks: general store, chapel, library, skating rink. He told us stories of the time he woke up in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve and actually saw, with his own two eyes, a Christmas elf in his bedroom checking in on him. To this day, my father, a 67-year-old man, swears by this story.
I never had an unhappy Christmas that I can remember. Not even the year some of us got the flu. Not even the year I wanted a computer but ended up with a lousy boombox. There was too much spectacle, too much fun to get caught up in technicalities.
It never even occurred to me that Christmas could be anything other than joyous until…well, until it wasn’t.
I didn’t suffer any great loss. One year, several years back, I just found myself in a malaise of anxiety and depression. I spent so much time playing a stupid bubble breaker game on my phone during the festivities that my family inquired after my wellbeing. It was one of those pointless plunges into the abyss: nothing in particular had triggered it, but I didn’t feel as if I could pull myself out of it.
I’m sure many of us can relate to a moment like this. This year, I’ve been asking around. How are you doing? No, really? And invariably the answer I get is: Not great.
People tell me that they’re exhausted. We’re coming out of a global crisis that pushed many to the breaking point. Covid, fear of getting Covid, annoyance at those who have more or less levels of fear of getting Covid than we do, lockdowns, social isolation, and of course the millions of deaths worldwide attributed to the virus, have made the last three years a haze of Zoom calls and grief. I’m convinced it may take years to reckon with the full toll the pandemic has wrought in terms of learning loss, mental health effects, mourning, and social distrust.
What’s more, people tell me that they’re angry. Americans are more polarized than we’ve been in generations. Our relationships with loved ones are increasingly strained over differences in politics: families estranged because so-and-so voted for such-and-such or posted this or that thing on Facebook. I’m not saying there’s never a reason to set clear boundaries, but what I see more often is that we regard one another as enemies. We assume bad faith and bad motivations of those who hold different perspectives. We are quick to point out the extremes on the “other” side and slow to recognize it on “our” side—or worse, to see the extremity of hostility that resides within our own hearts.
And people say they’re anxious. What will the future hold? Will the economy crash? Will society change so much we no longer recognize it as ours? Will war overseas turn into global conflict? Will there be enough food and fuel for everyone? Will the earth be able to sustain us? Will another pandemic come? Will there ever be justice for the poor and most marginalized among us?
And none of this even begins to consider the personal struggles that many are dealing with: losing a loved one, grappling with a devastating diagnosis, processing the ambiguous loss of a toxic relationship, struggling with the impacts of trauma and abuse, trying and failing and trying again to overcome an addiction or compulsive behavior, descending into the dark haze of depression, wondering if we’ll always be so alone…
Yes, as I’ve asked people how they’re doing this year, what they’ve told me is that they feel hopeless. In fact, this week I went to social media, where I have lots of friends who aren’t particularly religious because I know that for some, Christmas Eve might be one of the few times folks attend church at all. I asked, “Let’s say you got dragged to church on Christmas Eve? What’s the one thing you feel like you need to hear this year?”
The answer came back: “Hope, and where to find it.”
I tell you all this because, first of all, I want you to know that if you’re feeling hopeless or out of sorts this year, you’re not alone. And I also tell you this because I want to draw an important distinction. There is happiness that comes from Christmas lights, train sets, elves, and fun. I won’t knock it—that stuff is truly worth savoring. If you’ve got it, appreciate it for all it’s worth.
But that’s not where hope comes from. Hope comes from someplace much, much deeper. Hope comes from someplace much, much darker. In fact, hope is born out of the depths of darkness. It doesn’t come any other way. And, ultimately, that’s what Christmas is all about.
Let’s turn to the biblical story, shall we? Here is a young peasant woman, pregnant, vulnerable, and completely displaced. We’ve heard this story so many times it’s tempting to romanticize it as a darling donkey ride, but there’s not much charming about it.
Mary’s and Joseph’s story reveals the gritty realities of poverty and oppression. The journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem is about 90 miles, which they would have traveled on foot. They were forced to go by the great and powerful Roman Empire under penalty of punishment, even with Mary nine months pregnant, so that they could be registered and taxed. Such a journey must have been so grueling on Mary’s body. I can only imagine her exhaustion.
The text gives us just one sentence about the conditions of Jesus’ birth: “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”
Again, our traditions have sanitized this scene, imagining clean straw and well-behaved barn animals who sing songs about how much they helped the little baby, but reality is much messier than that. Childbirth isn’t exactly a pristine affair. It’s painful, and it’s primal, and especially in the ancient world, when women died in childbirth regularly, it’s dangerous. In the text, there is no mention of a midwife or a bed or even a blanket. Imagine how scary and disorienting it must have been. And then there’s the feeding trough from which decidedly non-singing animals sip and slurp, which the parents in their desperation use as a kind of makeshift cradle.
If there has been a grittier, grimier, more impoverished birth in the history of the world, I haven’t heard of it. Perhaps among the babies born in the streets or the slums or the prisons—there we might find a parallel. Not among our relatively safe and comfortable births in maternity wards, birth centers, and homes. Certainly not among the places we frequent as we shop for gifts or attend our annual Christmas parties.
Which makes what happens next even more jarring.
You see, if it was possible to be even less advantaged than Mary and Joseph were in the first century, you’d be a shepherd. Shepherds were the lowliest of all professions, neglected and despised for work that made it difficult for them to remain ritually pure. And yet, in the next part of the story, angels appear to them—to them, of all people—and announce that King of the World has been born.
“I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people,” the angel says. And then with him a multitude of the heavenly host appears, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
The scene is almost so absurd as to be comical. I was trying to imagine a modern-day parallel. It’s almost as if, instead of coronating King Charles after Queen Elizabeth’s death, someone claimed that actually, the new king was a child on the streets in London’s inner city; and that instead of announcing the news to world leaders and in every major media outlet via an expensive and well-executed public relations strategy, some kids in a run-down orphanage were the first to hear about it.
Or if, instead of all the major news networks calling the presidential election, some rancher over in Pahrump started saying that angels appeared to him and told him that the real president was a baby boy whose mother just gave birth in a homeless shelter.
If it sounds absurd it’s because it is absurd, but maybe what Christmas reveals to us that we’re the absurd ones for looking everywhere for hope except for where hope is actually found.
Because in these exhausting, angry, and anxious days, I want to suggest to you that here is where you will find the hope you’re so desperately seeking. Here, in the story of a displaced peasant couple and a newborn baby sleeping in a feeding trough. Here, in the announcement to utter nobodies that a homeless baby is the rightful king.
Because here you’ll catch a glimpse of how God heals the world.
Were you expecting something else? Maybe a cure for cancer? Maybe the reconciliation of all our political divisions? Maybe certainty in the face of our utter inability to know what the future holds? Were you expecting an end to all suffering and sorrow? Maybe a new, fully righteous government that does away with all injustice and harm?
Oh, my dear friends, I want those things, too. I yearn for the long-promised time when God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and there is no more death or mourning or crying or pain. I trust in those promises. I believe they are coming, and I await them with all my heart.
But they are not the source of my hope, any more than my dad’s Christmas magic was.
Because hope is not found when everything is set right, but when we experience love right in the midst of the mess.
This little baby, the one the angels announced to the shepherds, is more than just a king. He is God Himself come among us.
And so now we know that hope is a God who joins us in oppression and in suffering, in pain and in uncertainty, in sickness and in sorrow.
Now we know that hope is a choir of angels choosing the least important, least significant, least influential people in the world to be the first to hear the good news—because, ultimately, that is who the good news is for: the poor, the hungry, the mourning, the hated.
Now we know that hope is understanding that even though we can’t fix everything ourselves, we can do as God in Christ did, and go to where we see suffering, and be a presence of healing and grace.
Now we know that hope is a baby boy, born in the depths of night, destined to suffer and die for the sake of the world, so that he might be raised and show us that no matter our circumstances, no matter our struggles, no matter our exhaustion or our anger or our anxiety, we are loved, we are loved, we are loved.
Hope is being in the midst of darkness and seeing that through that darkness the light of the world has come.