The grace of God, which has appeared in the birth of Jesus the Christ, be with you always.
“Joy to the world, the Lord has come!” Christmas is about joy. You can see it in the face of a child ending the agonizing weeks of waiting in the full light of the Christmas tree. You can feel it around the table as families reunite and fond memories of past gatherings are shared. Christmas joy is experienced through the peace and rest of a break from daily efforts to make our way in the world.
As joyous as this season may be, Christmas can also be a time of grief and loneliness, pain and despair. As John Irving writes in A Prayer for Owen Meany, “Christmas is our time to be aware of what we lack, of who’s not home.” We can see be overwhelmed by how we have fallen short of our expectations for the perfect celebration – the meal is too meager, the roast too done, the gifts insufficient, the empty places at the table too many.
The incarnation of Christ is grace poured out upon humanity for the sake of broken, weary people. Saint Ambrose, a great preacher and teacher, Bishop of Milan in the 4th Century wrote in his Exposition on the Gospel of Luke:
“He was a baby and a child, so that you might be a perfect human.
He was wrapped in swaddling clothes so that you might be freed from the snares of death.
He was in a manger, so that you may be in the altar.
He was on the earth that you may be in the stars.
He had no other place in the inn, so that you may have many mansions in the heavens.
‘He, being rich, became poor for your sakes, that through his poverty you might be rich….’
He chose to lack for himself that he may abound for all.
The sobs of that appalling infancy cleanse me, those tears wash away my sins.”
Whether this Christmas brings joy or sadness, fulfillment or feelings of failure, or some bittersweet mixture of all these things, hear this: the center of the Christmas gospel is that God in Christ has invaded our space, sat down next to us to share our joy and bear our pain. Jesus is “God with us” – Immanuel. God has come to us to be incarnate in each moment of our living, each experience of joy and in every moment of suffering. Henry Wordsworth Longfellow expresses this presence of Christ in this way:
“And in despair I bowed my head;
There is no peace on earth, I said;
For hate is strong,
and mocks the song
of peace on earth, good will to men!”
“Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
God is not dead, nor doth he sleep!
The wrong shall fail
the right prevail
with peace on earth good will to men!”
Jesus Christ was born for you and for me. That is what makes Christmas merry.