Christmas and new year are the most joyous occasions of the year—we celebrate the coming of our saviour who was born to save us from our sins, and we also get an opportunity to look back at our life and prepare ourselves to start a fresh year. For many of us, this is the best of the best time of the year with our families and dear ones.
But this was not the case for many of us this year because of the amount of suffering, loss and death of dear ones that we have witnessed. The tragic stories and wreckage from the second wave of COVID-19 have not been erased from our minds yet.
How should we, then, approach and celebrate this meaningful time of the year? Should we take the ‘either-or’ approach where we either deny the harsh experiences and soak ourselves in cheer and celebration or continue to grieve the loss of our loved ones and stop thinking about the season altogether? Some of us may perhaps be struggling emotionally to get our heads around this issue. The better way to understand this dilemma is to ask the questions: How would Jesus respond to such ambivalence? Were there any events in the lives of God’s people in the scripture where they had two extreme opposites of their emotions collide against each other? How did they come to grips with grief and suffering in a season of celebration?
“Blessed are the happy who are unhappy”—sounds strange and ironic, isn’t it? But this is what essentially Jesus said in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are those who mourn” (Matt 5:4). The world defines happiness in terms of the absence of unhappiness and all aspire and work hard to achieve such happiness. Surprisingly, we find no such defined joy in any of the Bible characters; none of them had it easy in life because they believed in God and walked in His ways. On the contrary, their lives were too difficult because they walked close with God (2 Cor 11:23ff; Heb 11:35–37). Joy in Christian faith means to find it amid unfavourable present situation, and it is not always the absence of pain and struggles.
Christmas story in its true sense is a story of ambivalence—the Creator of the universe becomes the creation, the Almighty becomes vulnerable, the Infinite becomes finite to save us from our sins. Jesus’ birth into this world was the most joyous event and God was preparing the world for such a time (Gal 4:4). But in this story suffering and pain are stated in bold letters.
Although the story records the miraculous virgin birth, the shining star in the sky, the glorious heavenly choir, the astonishing provision for Mary’s delivery and the marvellous protection of baby Jesus from the hands of Herod, there are other strong and startling emotions noticed in the story. For instance, the message to Mary from angel Gabriel must have gladdened and excited her so much that she may have thought to herself that her delivery is going to be the most-celebrated experience, but the story does not miss out mentioning the challenges and struggles of Mary and Joseph. They had to take a long travel from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea, approximately 90 miles. Imagine the fate of a pregnant lady taking a long ride on the back of a donkey when in fact she should have been just at home resting during this crucial time. Did you also notice the surprising truth in the story? Mary is going to give birth to the Creator of the universe, but she does not have a decent place for his delivery. Jesus the Almighty is born but they must flee to Egypt for his protection from Herod.
There’s a series of challenges and struggles in Christmas story—emotional, spiritual and physical. Mary and Joseph must have had their own doubts about God’s leading in their life, but that’s exactly what the Christmas story points us to deliberate on, Christmas is a story where joy and suffering are placed side by side. The celebration of our saviour’s birth is presented to us in a context of suffering all around—a host of angels singing praises to God, magi worshiping baby Jesus by offering their precious gifts. We learn similar principle from the life of Paul where he rejoices in his suffering and pain for he knows that suffering serves as an opportunity for God’s strength to be demonstrated in and through his life (2 Cor 12:7–10).
How then should we think of our life in such juxtaposed situation? The author of Ecclesiastes aptly defines life: “At best, life is unpredictable. No one knows whether a pleasant or harsh future awaits. Perhaps it is better that way. It would be nice if good actions always guaranteed a pleasant future, but they don’t. Sometimes, in this fallen world, it is just the opposite” (Eccl 9:6a—The Voice). We must accept the fact that we live in a broken world and life is not going to be the way we always plan and work for but let us not forget the truth that it is not our complete story. For a child of God, life does not end with suffering, there is always a glorious outcome promised. Just as a seed dies and produces many a seed, so also Jesus’ suffering brought salvation into the world marking a magnificent history and a new beginning. Likewise, Paul’s sufferings were instrumental in the spread of the gospel to various regions, and his legacy continues.
Our suffering is not an end in itself, it always has a goal and God will accomplish it in His time. Christmas and New Year not only provide us a context of celebration, but also point us to a new beginning. Our part is to be anchored in hope for God to work in and through us as He did it for Paul. He is always in the business of renewal, and in this new year, there’s yet another opportunity for us to examine and recommit ourselves to Him for a renewal within us. Let us cast out the spirit of despair and embrace the one of hope. Let us replace our fear with courage, and doubt with belief so that we serve Him in the new year as never before.