“In him was life, and that life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” John 1:4
“What if Jesus never came?” is best asked when life is thrown out of kilter, when Advent feels unsettled or disrupted, not because of the usual holiday activities, but because our souls have been touched or troubled in a significant way. As I look back, the Christmases that I remember being the most meaningful are the ones that were upsetting and disquieting. The Lord brings the message of Christmas home in unexpected and sometimes unsettling ways.
Sometimes our best-laid plans for a merry Christmas don’t go as expected. One Christmas in Toronto when all the preparations were completed—the gifts were wrapped, and the decorations were up. Our children were at a wonderful stage: Kennerly was two, Andrew five, and Jeremiah seven. It was much easier to impress them then than it is today. What made it even more exciting was that Grandma Webster was flying in from Chicago on Christmas Eve. She had a well-deserved reputation for being a great gift giver. Holiday traffic was heavy at the airport, so it took me longer to pick up my mother than we expected, but we finally arrived home. As we walked in the front door, we heard Kennerly screaming in pain. Minutes before, Kennerly had tripped while chasing her older brothers and had slammed headfirst into a door frame. She had a gash on her forehead that wouldn’t stop bleeding, and Virginia was trying to console her while pressing a towel against her forehead to stop the flow of blood. Since the cut was deep, we hurried off to the emergency room, leaving Andrew and Jeremiah with Grandma.
Apparently, Christmas Eve is a rough night for many families, because the ER was packed with people, many of whom were in far worse shape than Kennerly, although they weren’t screaming like she was. We waited for three hours before a very tired doctor stitched up Kennerly’s forehead, and I still remember holding my screaming 2-year-old, who thought she was being tortured. Meanwhile, back at home, the boys had the situation completely under control. They had convinced Grandma that since they were so upset over Kennerly’s accident, they should be able to open a gift. She agreed, but they ended up opening one gift every thirty minutes. We arrived home four hours later, and the boys had opened all their gifts. They were thrilled! We were exhausted. That is the only time I remember sleeping in on Christmas morning.
Our minor setback on Christmas Eve is not meant to compete with the circumstances and difficulties you may be facing this Christmas. But it serves as a parable, reminding me that, try as we might, the real joy of Christmas lies outside our circumstances and all our preparations. If Jesus had never come, the measure of our lives would be what we make of it, and as plans go awry and preparations fail, life becomes a casualty of disappointments and frustrations. For as long as life rests on our own self-effort and good fortune, the joy of life extends only to the happiness of our circumstances. Believing, as well as hearing, are best served by hard surfaces. Like a voice in a marble cathedral, the angel of the Lord’s announcement, “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord”resonates best during hard Christmases (Luke 2:11). Dietrich Bonhoeffer, pastor and resistance fighter in Hitler’s Germany, wrote to a friend from prison,
“If I should still be kept in this hole over Christmas, don’t worry about it. I’m not really anxious about it. One can keep Christmas as a Christian even in prison, more easily than family occasions, anyhow” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters & Papers From Prison, Macmillan, 1972, 133).
Dr. Doug Webster is professor of pastoral theology and Christian preaching. He is also the author of A Christmas Journey.