The Dark Side of Christmas

11:35 AMHeather

Have a holly jolly Christmas.  At least, that is the expectation.  Season of merriment and joy and fun and laughter.  Yet statistics show that Christmas time is the most likely time of year for people to experience depression.  Additionally, the suicide rate in December is higher than any other month of the year.  While it may seem contradictory to some that people should hit rock bottom during such a time of celebration, I think many of us can understand this statistic.  Because maybe we have fallen into that number of depressed and struggling, triggered by the holidays.

The holidays are full of pressure and stress.  The idea of creating a sense of wonder and making Christmas card worthy memories.  Intensified with the onslaught of social media, where we can see what others are up to in real time.  And in real time, we can compare what we are doing with what others are doing.  It's supposed to be a magical time of the year, right?  So why do so many of us feel as though we aren't invited to the holiday theme park?

For so many of us, this "special" time of year is an annual reminder of who is NOT sitting at our table.  It's the stab of pain of past holidays and the fact that we are missing someone who was so significant in our lives.  For some of my dearest friends, this is the first Christmas without a father or nephew or husband.  Or, it's the time of year when their relative passed away.  And the depths of our grief is emphasized by the joy of those around us.

What's so merry about Christmas?  

That may be where you are today.  Maybe you had visions of Christmas celebrations with a significant other, yet you find yourself single for another holiday.  Maybe you can hardly bear to consider getting through the holidays without the person with whom you made all your previous Christmas memories.  Or maybe you are in a season of waiting and you thought that surely by Christmas time, your prayers would be answered.  Your adopted child would be home.  Your job search would end.  Your infertility would be over.  You'd be reunited with an estranged loved one.

Today, I want us to dwell on the familiar words of the Christmas carol Away in the Manger.  I think that we have some encouragement to glean from this perhaps all too familiar song.  So, I ask that you take a moment and pray for insight and perspective as you read through the lyrics.

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
The little Lord Jesus lay down His sweet head.
The stars in the bright sky looked down where He lay,
The little lord Jesus asleep on the hay.
The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes
But little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes.
I love Thee, Lord Jesus, look down from the sky.
And stay by my cradle till morning is nigh.
Sweet bells they ring, they ring out the news today,
That Christ was born, was born on Christmas day,
Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay
Close by me for ever and love me, I pray.
Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care
And take us to Heaven to live with Thee there.
Sweet bells they ring they ring out the news
That Christ was born, was born on Christmas Day,
That Christ was born, was born on Christmas day.

Yesterday, I was praying for friends who are struggling this holiday season, and this song came to mind.  Literally, in mid-prayer, I considered this thought. 
Tradition holds that Jesus was laid in a manger and born in a barn.  Some debate this fact and say actually, it was a cave. Others say that it was likely the first floor of a home, where livestock would live while the family slept on an upper floor.
Whichever the case may be, suffice it to say that Jesus was not born in pristine and perfect conditions.  He came in a dirty, common place.  And surely, it was not the easiest of conditions.  Surely, it fell short of what his young mother had dreamed of as she undoubtedly recounted the angel's words in her head, throughout her pregnancy.  She must of had other ideas.  Of a picture perfect setting.  A great celebration.  A wonderful and glorious place to welcome her son, whom she knew to be the son of Yahweh himself. The God of her fathers. 
In other words, when you feel that the holidays fall short of your dreams and wishes and deepest desires, you are in rather good company.  If you feel as though you are stuck in a cave, dark and frightened and alone, then consider this.  You are actually in a place that reflects that first Christmas more accurately than your neighbor's perfectly trimmed tree and bright Christmas lights.  If your heart is crying out shouts of dread about this holiday because it intensifies the hard place where you find yourself, then I actually think are most closely aligned with that first Christmas.
That day of our Savior's birth.  The long awaited Messiah was coming.  The One whom ancient prophecies had foretold for generations.  After a 400 year silence for the people of Israel, the exclamation of angels was about to break through and change everything.
Because the Light of the World was coming.  Into a dark and common place.  Into a place of ugly smells and sounds.  A place messy and far from ideal. 
If you are in a season of cave dwelling, with dark feelings and thoughts overshadowing the holidays, then you are perfectly positioned for this Christmas season.  You are in the places where Jesus shows up.  When you least expect it.  In the least likely ways.  
Because we don't sing, "Away in the mansion, plenty of room for a lush bed."  We sing "Away in the Manger."  We raise our voices with words proclaiming the hope we can have. When we stop and consider that no matter how ugly things seem or how far from your dreams or how dark and lonely your circumstance, THAT is where Jesus shows up.  His coming to earth points to this.  That he, being in the likeness of God, did not consider equality a thing to be grasped.  But he came to earth as a human.  And not just a human, but a servant.  To die.  And not just any death, but a horrific and humiliating death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-11).  

And then, he was laid in a cave.  In a tomb.  And a darkness fell over the land.  A suffocating and terrifying darkness.

If that describes the season of life that you are in, then embrace this hope.  Jesus comes to us in caves.  And light bursts forth as his presence is revealed there, with us. His light was first shown when he was born in a cave.  And the eternal light of the world was shown when he arose from one.
Caves are not where we stay.  Rather, they are the places of transition, where He shows up to make a way out.
As you remember the words of Away in the Manger, whisper this prayer..."Be near me, Lord Jesus.  I ask you to stay.  Close by me forever and love me, I pray.  Bless all the dear children in thy tender care, and take me to heaven to live with thee there."
This chorus says it all.  I pray it speaks peace to your hurting and wounded soul.
Because the Lord Jesus is near.  He came in a cave and was buried in a cave.  Caves have no power over him.  Because he doesn't stay there.  He loved us too much for that.  He showed his tender care and his mighty love by living to die.  By dying to love.  And making a way for us to have an eternity where all tears are dried and all sorrows are healed and all wrongs are made right.  And that truth--the power of that truth--lights the way to an exit sign in every dark place where we find ourselves.
Away in the Manger.  Legend has it that it was a song written from a lullaby that the great Christian reformer Martin Luther sang to his children. It was originally called Luther's Cradle Hymn, and was then passed on to German mothers to sing to their own children.  However, this legend has been disputed, with a more reliable story that it was actually written late in the 19th century as a tribute for the 400th anniversary of Luther's birth. 
Whomever the author, we can be sure of the encouragement that the words hold for us.  
That our Savior comes into our mangers.  He comes into our rock bottoms, like the feeding trough made from rocks for the animals, otherwise known as a manger.  Nothing we face is too hard or too dark for him to dare to enter in and be near us.  Stay near us.  Love us. With his tender care. 
Because Jesus enters into this dark places with us in order to reveal that He has a way out of them.
If Christmas fills your heart with dread, then I pray you are encouraged to remember that Jesus is right there with you.  And you have no need to apologize for your lack of excitement for the holidays.  You can just rest there, praying for the eyes to see him show up with you.
And if Christmas is just a joyful and wonderful and merry and bright time for you, then will you not forget to remember the pain that this season brings for so many?  Will you pray for specific people you know who struggle during the holidays?  Will you write them a note or consider a way to reach out to them?  To show up and be the light in their caves?  
Christmas.  The time of year that we can set our hearts and fix our eyes on the glorious truth that the dank and smelly places on earth are not where we are destined to stay.  

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