Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas Joy

Today’s post is an adaptation of a Christmas letter I recently sent to family and friends. I write one every year as an alternative to Christmas cards. When I first started, I would send out a couple hundred of them all by snail mail. Thanks to modern technology and a touch of laziness, I have been able to save quite a few trees (and postage) by only printing and mailing about half as many.

Each year I try to achieve the dual purpose of (1) sharing family news and (2) saying something inspiring. I almost did not send a letter out this year because, to be honest, I wasn’t feeling very inspired. Too much of the family news I had to share was not very joyful, and the majority of my recipients were already well aware of it. I had heard many of them express, either verbally or via a post on Facebook, that they would just as soon bid good riddance to the year 2009.

And on one level, I could certainly understand and appreciate the sentiment, because—at least by human standards--it has not been a good year. In my 2008 Christmas letter, I had tried to wax poetic and sentimental with bittersweet nostalgia about our grandparents’ and parents’ generation, and how the years were slipping by and taking with them more and more loved ones from those wonderful generations. It was a euphemistic way of expressing an unpleasant truth: people die.

When I wrote those words, I had no idea how that truth would play out in the coming year, and how it does not just happen to the older generation. Around the same time that my wife and I were stuffing envelopes with last year’s Christmas letters, a young cousin of ours was struck by a car, ending her precious life at the age of 24. I was filled with a predictable measure of shock, horror and sadness, and also a sense of regret because I hardly knew her. That’s what unfortunately happens when time and careers and life pull you away from family. I had just started to get reacquainted with her mother (my first cousin) via email and the blogosphere, and in one email I lamented how we only see each other at weddings and funerals. And as it turned out, the next time I saw her was at a gathering in memory of her daughter.

Something similar happened six months later with another cousin, who grew up next door to me and with whom in later years I had ever so infrequent contact. Her young son of seventeen, an extremely intelligent, outgoing, other-centered and gifted young man with a promising future, died suddenly from a brain aneurysm just as he was graduating from high school. Again, in addition to the shock and sadness, there was also the regret that I barely knew him.

In both cases, I learned only afterwards how much I had missed by not having the privilege of knowing and interacting with two fine young folks, and now they were suddenly gone. It’s not supposed to be that way. Older folks are supposed to die. But then again, neither is it pleasant when our loved ones in the older generations are taken away, and we have seen plenty of that this year as well. In February I lost a dear aunt whom I absolutely adored, and she was followed five days later by my uncle, who mercifully did not have to mourn his wife too long before he was able to join her.

And now it has been one month since my own mother passed away. I would have thought this would be easier to cope with, because she had been struggling with a debilitating illness for years, and her passing was in many ways a blessing for her, as it meant the end of her suffering, and a joyful reunion with my father and all of her loved ones who had gone before. And more importantly, she is with the Savior. Still, this loss has been difficult as well.

And yet, as Job said, “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised." At first glance, these words might seem rather flippant, as if God were aloof or indifferent to the giving and taking of life. Does He not understand the pain?

Here is the reason I can have Christmas joy even after a year like this, because God indeed does understand. He is never indifferent to our pain and sorrows, because He has experienced them Himself. The following words from one of my favorite theologians are right on the mark.

I could never myself believe in God if it were not for the cross. The only God I believe in is the one Nietzsche ridiculed as “God on the cross”. In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? … I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through his hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in God-forsaken darkness. That is the God for me! He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us. Our sufferings become more manageable in the light of his. There is still a question mark against human suffering, but over it we boldly stamp another mark, the cross which symbolizes divine suffering. (John Stott, The Cross of Christ, pp. 335-336)

Jesus indeed understands our pain and sorrows, for He himself was a “man of sorrows.” At Christmas we celebrate His incarnation, and as we contemplate what that means, it puts into perspective any sadness we may feel, particularly during this season which is otherwise expected to be joyful.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. (John 1:14)

[Jesus] made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:7-8)

The “Word made flesh” is the glorious truth we celebrate at Christmas. Jesus is our “Emmanuel,” which means “God with us”. He understands our weaknesses and sorrows and will never leave us nor forsake us. And this gives me joy, not only at Christmas, but all year long.

A joyful Christmas and a blessed new year to all!

1 comment:

Shirley Vandever said...

Late to comment, these are helpful words to me. I too wish to be rid of 2009, but 2010 is not looking that much better for the world. My resolution for the New Year is not to lose weight or quit smoking (though I should). It is to make the effort to keep in better touch with my loved ones. We all seem to be cocooning for whatever reason. Escape? I don't know. But at the risk of being a jerk, I will reach out more. We're all in this humanity thing together.