Our oldest daughter was born in November, one month after moving to a new city. Though I was overjoyed she was finally here, I also felt isolated, depressed and in constant fear I would somehow break her. So as I heard the familiar story of Jesus’ birth throughout the season of Advent that year, I felt like I experienced it for the first time.
I thought about how anxious Mary must have been on the journey to Bethlehem, praying she wouldn’t give birth on the side of the road. And the despair she and Joseph must have felt when they realized there wasn’t even a place for them to stay when they arrived. And then, after the baby was born (which is terrifying enough in a hospital, I can’t imagine what it was like in a barn), feeling overwhelmed by a visit from strangers in the middle of the night—a pack of shepherds, no less. I took great comfort in knowing Jesus’ world included anxious, sleep-deprived and overwhelmed parents.
Anxious, weary, in despair, overwhelmed. How these feelings clash with the coziness, comfort and security we usually associate with Christmas.
Our culture loves to loudly celebrate the season. Flashing lights and brass bands declare it to be the most wonderful time of the year. Extravagance is encouraged and busy-ness is a state of being. Our expectations are high for the holidays: for giving and receiving the perfect gifts, for peace in our homes, for feeling loved.
But Christmas isn’t always so merry. In fact, the season often highlights our brokenness. We may be experiencing debilitating grief due to the loss of a family member. Or be acutely aware of our singleness. Our physical or mental health may be deteriorating. We may feel swallowed up by our own economic reality. Our hearts may be shattered by helplessness as we think about the conflict in Gaza or Ukraine.
These feelings of sadness and anxiety are heightened when happiness seems like the only acceptable emotion.
Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us. And he is at home with suffering—not only in his death but in his life. In his early years, his family fled King Herod’s murderous tyranny and lived as refugees in Egypt. During his ministry, he knew a life of homelessness and relied on others’ benevolence. He understands the grief of betrayal from his closest friends, of being mocked and harassed. And of course he knows physical pain and the burden and consequence of our sin.
The amazing thing is that he’s not done with suffering. Even though he lived his life as a servant (Philippians 2:7), he literally wants us to unload on him:
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
What an incredible God we serve. He suffers with us, he suffers for us. He wants us to trust him with our pain.
Advent requires us to remember back: to that incredible day when heaven came down, when Jesus entered our fragmented domain. But it also requires us to remember forward: to yearn for the day when God will live among us again, when “‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4).