Throughout my adult life, Christmas has been a painful holiday for me. It is not that I am a cynical Scrooge—at least I hope this is not the case! I am simply flooded with conflicting emotions. Usually they subside into a kind of low-grade depression. Perceiving that everyone around me is jumping with joy and bursting with energy, I put on a happy face and pretend to be “Christmasy.” In spite of my greatest efforts, my heart still aches.
Like snowflakes, the words of those who are impatient with my lack of holiday spirit pelt my pain with chilling effect. “Come on! Get with the program! It’s Christmas, for God’s sake!” I am too dispirited, too devoid of warmth, to melt them into nothingness. Does my attitude indicate a cheerless giver? Is it that I am basically unwilling to give? What is going on here, for God’s sake?
The Christian tale is fraught with hope and joy—abounding with proclamations of victory. “See, your savior comes! Here is his reward with him, his recompense before him. . . . You shall be called ‘Frequented,’ a city that is not forsaken” (Isa 62:11–12). Why do I not hear those words and smile? Why is it that I am unable to experience gleefulness? What reasons can be summoned to explain the fact that I am not breaking out in song nor shouting for joy?
With the gravity demanded by the profundity of the questions, I pray, seeking to discover answers. I ponder the scriptures for clues. Reading and rereading, contemplating and cogitating, musing and meditating, I am struck with one solitary thought: Look to the players. Carefully view the participants at that first Christmas to discover and uncover their feelings. At least this is a place to begin. And so, I do.
First I spend some time with Joseph—patient, obedient, long-suffering Joseph. Little is written, much must be read between the lines, about this man. Certainly he had a clear sense of who he was. His lineage spoke volumes. Heir to the house and family of David, Joseph’s forbearance was not easily won. It was wrested from generations of courageous, daring men and women. The genetic heritage had, once again, to be tested in Joseph’s decision to remain with Mary and be her husband. Despite the fact that their time together was already fraught with puzzlement and worry, Joseph sought no reprieve from duty. He did what he believed was right and good, no matter the circumstances or discomfort. Complaining was not Joseph’s style.
As if journeying to fulfill obligations were not enough, Joseph was also aware that birthing time was near. He had no T-shirt to proclaim him an “Awesome Dad,” nor bouquets of flowers to offer the mother-to-be. What he possessed and presented was persistently awe-filled determination. Certainly, mother and son would have a significant role in his life, a purposeful place in his world. Silent as a statue, Joseph demonstrated the staying power of discipleship long before that word was connected with Christianity.
Husband to Mary, father to Jesus, carpenter by trade, Joseph found joy being an ordinary person living an extraordinary life. When divine messages came, he heeded. Challenges delivered by God’s spokespersons were always affirmed. No matter how puzzling the communication, Joseph’s response was “Yes.” His was the profoundly simple peace that marks the person who faithfully continues to do what must be done despite hardship, conflict, confusion, or lack of certitude.
With Joseph at her side, the days of Mary’s confinement were over—in more ways than one. Though it was probably not yet apparent to her, Mary gained a new freedom when she gave birth to Jesus. Unencumbered by the vagaries of expectation, she was free to live with expectancy. It was the paradoxical freedom of one who leads by following, parents in childlike innocence, lives a lot while dying a little. Mary’s freedom urged her to leave sadness, enter sorrow—and find joy!
There was nothing that Mary did not treasure in her life. She reflected on each occurrence. Every story she heard was food for thought, cause for pondering. Mary was a contemplative. She held life by its heartstrings, allowing its bittersweetness to pierce her soul without damaging her spirit. There is such tenderness in the words, “She gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger” (Luke 2:7). There is also deep sorrow “because there was no room for them in the place where travelers lodged” (Luke 2:7).
Mary wondered as she pondered. Awestruck, she noticed little things that most would have overlooked in the excitement that accompanies the birth of a child. Despite her desire to hold him tightly, not wishing to let him go, she offered him place and space—always sufficient for the moment, never too much too soon or too little too late. Mary gave Jesus room where there was no room, lodging where travelers in God’s reign would find respite. And she found joy in the giving!
There was no murmuring nor mumbling heard in this spot—only marveling at the miracle of birth, and selfless acceptance of responsibility. Scarcely had she and Joseph been able to absorb the reality of their parenthood when the discipline of hospitality descended upon them. Mary was given no time for private glee and personal gloating. From the onset, she was called to share her son with the world. It would not be a world of her choice, but one that was home to the homeless, the vagabonds, the outcasts, the unwashed and unwanted dregs of society.
Shepherds in the locality, living in the fields and keeping night watch over their flock, overcame their fear and listened to the proclamation of good news borne by angels of God. They believed in signs of divinity and heeded the call to go and see what God had wrought. “They went in haste and found the baby lying in the manger; once they saw, they understood what had been told them concerning this child” (Luke 2:16–17).
Simple folk, they were drawn to this extraordinarily ordinary child. Wordlessly inarticulate, they were privy to the wisdom of ages. Hurrying to gaze at an ordinary infant, they saw the child of promise—the Messiah, God-with-us, whose saving mission would be messy. Regal in his divine humanity yet unassuming in appearance and manner, this babe would grow into adulthood—and restlessly, relentlessly challenge the status quo. Even now, his presence impelled those shepherds to go forth and report their astonishing findings wherever they went.
What has this meditation taught me? What have I learned from this reflection? The answer is simple yet complicated: Christmas joy brightly lights the shadow of the cross.
The joy, the peace, the promised gift of salvation is not gaily wrapped in tinsel and trappings. There is no superficiality to it. Christmas joy is serious, steady sanctification. Christmas joy “trains us to reject godless ways and worldly desires, as we await our blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of the great God and our Savior Christ Jesus” (Titus 2:13).
There is no doubt about it, Christmas joy brightly lights the shadow of the cross. I wish you joy and peace in the light that brightly shines on us today. ♦
Fran Salone-Pelletier holds a master’s degree in theology. She is the author of a trilogy of scriptural meditations, Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives, from which this selection is taken. She is also a religious educator, retreat leader, lecturer, and grandmother of four. Reach her at email@example.com.