Why does Christmas hurt so bad?

Christmas is a big mess of tangled emotions, and the older I get the more I despair of ever sorting them out. Am I supposed to feel nostalgia or hope, gratitude or angst? Is Christmas a time for cheering or weeping? I really can’t tell. Maybe the answer to all these questions is yes.

The promise of Christmas is other-worldly. For this one special day each year, everything is supposed to be healthy and whole, at peace and in right order. I have visions of togetherness with family and friends, delicious food piled high. No one is without a home; everyone has a place at the table. For one brief, shining moment, all is calm, all is bright.

Even in the most secular of Christmas celebrations, there is an unspoken sense that somehow, at least for this one day, the atonement ought to have its intended effect. The lion should lie down with the lamb, our in-laws should get along, and even the most difficult and mean-spirited of us should be welcomed and forgiven. Whatever our condition those other 364 days of the year, Christmas is an invitation to take a time out and love one another.

No wonder Christmas is such an emotionally bewildering time for me! The presence of real love is destabilizing. The self-giving spirit of Jesus knocks me out of my regularly scheduled program and invites me to seek the peaceable kingdom here and now. Even when it hurts.

And it often does. The gap between the way things are and the way things ought to be can seem insurmountable. In light of Christ’s coming and presence in the world, all of the brokenness, injustice, and cruelty stands out more starkly. As does the will to heal it. I can’t take human misery for granted. Not today. Not on Christmas. My breaking heart won’t allow it.

Today, as we celebrate the birth of Jesus, I am reminded that this state of tenderness is to be the norm. This is the condition I find myself in when I accept the leadership of the little child, whom Isaiah promised would one day come to guide us in the peaceable kingdom of God’s love.

This is what lies behind the potent brew of conflicting emotions. It’s the joy of the world we sense coming and the anguish of our present struggles, all mixed up together. When the longing for the beauty we know is possible becomes almost too much to bear, that’s the spirit of Christmas. When in our broken-heartedness and joy we reach out to make love visible in the lives of those around us, that’s the Word made flesh. Jesus is born and lives among us.

It’s OK if Christmas hurts, as well as being joyful. That’s how we know it’s working. Christ is coming alive within us. There’s no contradiction between the pain and the joy; that’s a truth every mother knows.