They call it “holiday depression syndrome.” Many people seem to struggle over Christmas. The added pressure, busyness, and expense, not to mention other factors like less sunlight, interpersonal tensions, grief, and pain, can all make Christmas a challenging time.
I’m thinking right now of the wife of a pastor who passed away three months ago after a weeklong illness. For her, Christmas will be raw. My mind goes through the names of other people I know facing similar struggles: the newly divorced, those who have been laid off, and those for whom 2016 has been a painful year.
Although Christmas is a joyous time for many, it’s equally hard for others. We shouldn’t be surprised. Joy and sorrow have always been part of the Christmas story.
“I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people,” said the angel to the shepherds (Luke 2:10). “This child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed,” said Simeon to Joseph and Mary (Luke 2:34-35). There’s joy in Jesus’ birth. But there are also the harsh realities of life: poverty, oppression, and pain. Both are part of the Christmas story.
One of my friends, a seminary professor, argues that churches need to recover the lost art of lament. So many of the psalms are laments, he says. The psalmist teaches us to pour out our hearts to God, and to be honest about our pain. It’s a good idea to break the image of the Christian life as pure, unbridled happiness, he says. We need joy in our expressions of worship, and we also need expressions of sorrow and grief. Both are part of worship.
The same is true of Christmas. We need to make room for joyous celebration. But we need to make room in our Christmas for honest expressions of pain. God isn’t impressed when we try to fake it or pretend. There’s room in the Christmas story for our pain.
So rejoice in Christmas. It’s okay to feast, exult, and celebrate.
But let’s also learn to lament at Christmas too. Jesus was born to poor, teenage parents who were far from home, and who became refugees. He was raised in a country that was under foreign oppression. Contrary to the Christmas carol that says “no crying he made,” Jesus cried. He hungered. The baby born at Christmas grew to be the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3). He was the baby, after all, who was born to die.
The older I get, the more I’m convinced of the importance of honesty with God. And the more I’m grateful that God makes room not only for our joy, but for the full range of emotions we experience — including, it turns out, the emotions of those who struggle at Christmas.