Written by. Thomas S. Kidd
There’s a stark difference between the tranquil, happiness-filled Christmas that companies market to us beginning every Black Friday, and the Christmas that many of us actually experience. If you are reading this blog post, you’re certainly old enough to have experienced the difference. Remembering loved ones no longer there at the celebrations. Estrangements that the holidays only magnify. Financial stress that the holidays exacerbate. If we’re honest, I suspect that many of us sitting in church (not to mention those absent from church) struggle with the gap between the idealized Christmas, and the real holiday experiences of sadness, loss, or anxiety.
The good news is that the biblical Christmas accounts for the difference. This is one more reason why Christians need to stick close to the biblical meaning of Christmas, lest our “American cultural Christmas” set us up for amplified disappointment.
Biblical Christmas is full of great hope, but it hardly resolves the grief and suffering rooted in the world’s sin. At least it doesn’t resolve everything yet.
Just look at the Bible’s Christmas narratives. Fear, danger, and trouble are woven into the accounts. Yes, the angels proclaimed, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” But that hardly resolves all trouble.
This trouble begins with the eternal Son of God becoming a baby, laid in a feeding trough in a backwater town, destined to die a criminal’s death on a cross. He was born in exclusion, as there was no room at the inn. He was likely born to impoverished parents, as indicated by their offering of two doves or pigeons, the poorest gifts permissible at the temple.
In Luke 2, godly Simeon prophesied that the infant Jesus was the Messiah. But he also acknowledged that the coming of the Messiah meant the time had come for Simeon to die. (“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word.”) He told Mary that “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.” A sword piercing Mary’s soul? No wonder that the Song of Simeon (the “Nunc Dimittis”) is a standard for funerals, not for Christmas services!
We almost always end the reading of the Christmas account in Matthew 2:12, the conclusion of the visit of the magi. But that is just where the account turns the most dark. Mary and Joseph have to flee with Jesus to Egypt, fearing Herod’s murderous campaign to destroy the Messiah. Indeed, Herod ordered the killing of all infant boys in the region of Bethlehem, one of the most horrific acts in all of Scripture. Matthew says, “Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”
Weeping, lamentation, and a lack of comfort? They remain part of the Christmas narrative too.
Don’t get me wrong: I would not advise your church to make this into “the most depressing Christmas ever”! But don’t try to make it the “merriest Christmas ever,” either. Don’t get out beyond what Scripture teaches about Christmas. The long-awaited Messiah has come, a stunning, seminal moment in the history of redemption. This incarnation leads the saints to rejoice and worship.
But Jesus’s earthly career had only begun, and the crucifixion still lay ahead. Not even Easter resolves all troubles and grief. At Christmas, we know that the time of complete resolution and reconciliation lies yet in the future, when God will wipe away the tears of the saints, “and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4).
Thomas S. Kidd,Ph.D is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University, and the author of many books, including George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (Yale, 2014) and Baptists in America: A History with Barry Hankins (Oxford, 2015)