Christmas can be hard to deal with. It’s an emotional and psychological mixed bag, and that can get confusing. Familiar songs of joy and gladness and feelings of excited anticipation are the expected standard for most of us, but for some, the season brings a radically different set of expectations. While one side reinforces its perspective with tales of overcoming faith, unexpected provision, redemptive sacrifice, and newly discovered love, the other side validates its view with heartbreaking renditions of holidays marred by tragic grief and loss.
“Christmas Miracles” vs. “Christmas Misery” ~
Uplifting tales of “Christmas miracles” will always trump accounts of “Christmas misery”, but the fact that the former is more appealing doesn’t discount the fact that the latter is just as real–sometimes more so. The problem is that each viewpoint tends to promote a persistent focus on itself, even to the extent that the other side becomes unconsciously excluded, resulting in an unbalanced view of one of the most profound events in human history. When that happens, the whole picture suffers because much of the power to bless on either side lies in its dramatic contrast with the other.
The search for balance in the face of conflicting realities is not a new thing, nor is it unique to our approach to Christmas. The birth of Christ may be a New Testament story, but God provided us with a helpful Old Testament episode that has a unique connection with both the Christmas story and the conflict that the season can bring. Both take place in Bethlehem, and both reveal a time of great conflict between joyous celebration and deep personal grief.
We sing “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem” as we celebrate the birth of Christ, but there was another challenging birth that took place there long before Jesus. That birth, described in the first mention of Bethlehem in the Bible, was a battle between life and death, between heart-rending grief and soul-stirring hope, a conflict that Christmas still represents for many.
Introducing Bethlehem ~
Our first contact with the obscure village of Bethlehem in the Biblical record occurs hundreds of years before the Messiah ever graced it with His presence. That introduction gives Bethlehem a character that has endured through all the centuries that followed. The episode is recorded in Genesis 35:16-20 where we find Jacob, now renamed, Israel, on his way back home. He had lived with his uncle, Laban, for an extended period of time, during which he received some advanced training from God in human relationships and spiritual accountability.
Jacob and his entourage had stopped overnight at a place he afterward called Bethel, meaning “house of God”. During the night, God spoke to him and reiterated the covenant He had made with Abraham, promising blessing, multiplication, and prosperity. Hearing that reinforcement on the heels of his challenging experience with Laban must have produced an unusual sense of optimistic joy for Jacob—something deeper and more enduring than superficial, transient “happiness”. God had given him a gift that was priceless. He was a broken man after deceiving his father, Isaac; defrauding his brother;, and denying the trustworthiness of the One he claimed to serve, yet God’s forgiveness gave him more than just a pardon; he was restored to divine favor and was made the recipient of a glorious promise.
The joy of that affirmation and encouragement at Bethel no doubt lingered as they made their way to a little place called Bethlehem, only a short distance down the road. Jacob’s beloved wife, Rachel, was pregnant during their journey—yet another cause for joyous anticipation. There was every reason to be filled with gratitude and hope as they arrived in Bethlehem, and with no hint that a little village whose name means “House of Bread” would come to be called the “House of Pain”. No one would have suspected that a contest between life and death was waiting that night, or that God would show His power to knit our worst pain and sorrow together with our greatest promise and hope through a single event in an unassuming little town.
An Epic Confrontation ~
It must have been heartbreaking to watch—Rachel’s son struggling to breathe his first breaths as she breathed her last. As her life ebbed away in sacrifice for his, Rachel called her son’s name, Ben-oni—“son of my sorrow”. Wracked with grief as he looked at the little face that had brought so much sorrow with it, Jacob saw that beyond the pain, there was promise. In his infant son’s eyes, he saw life and strength and hope, and he called his name, Benjamin—“son of my right hand”. Heartache and joy joined hands in the darkness of that little village. Pain and promise weren’t enemies that night. They clung to each other, sharing the tears that love inevitably demands, embracing the promise they accomplished together.
Hundreds of years later, in a common stable in that same little village, perhaps not far from where the son of Rachel’s sorrow became the son of Jacob’s right hand, pain and promise held hands again, and thousands of years later, we still feel the power of that moment.
Centuries later, we seem determined to dismantle the pain and promise coalition God forged in Bethlehem, especially when it comes to Christmas. We want the joy to be pure and untainted, and to see that sorrow discreetly ushered away, out of sight, safely out of touch from our happy scenes. We want songs of hope and gladness at every point, relegating any hint of suffering to a different place and time. We forget that Jacob didn’t get to enjoy such insulation from pain and loss, and neither did God. Reality didn’t accommodate it then, and reality won’t accommodate it now. In the matter of pain and loss vs. hope and promise, God never intended the presence of either to eliminate the powerful possibilities inherent in the other.
Finding the Balance ~
As we celebrate the promise of life and strength and rejoice in the hope that God delivered through Mary that first Christmas night, we must not ignore the pain that preceded it. We rejoice in Bethlehem’s gift, but it did not arrive alone. God balanced the joy of new life and the promise of eternal peace with the painful reality of its cost. As Mary and Joseph struggled together against the physical agony that always precedes the entrance of new life, the dark shadow of a cross mingled among the stars over their heads that night.
Bethlehem’s gift came with a glorious promise, but the “Son” who embodied its hope would also have to absorb the combined suffering of every grief and loss any of us ever felt before His promise could be fulfilled. The One who brought joy in the midst of pain is waiting to share whatever awaits you this Christmas season. Whether it finds you struggling with heartache or rejoicing in hope, the love Jesus brought embraces them both, and the peace the angels declared that night can overshadow it all.
© 2017 Gallagher’s Pen, Ronald L. Gallagher, Ed.S. All rights reserved.
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Beautifully written account. Thanks, Ron.