Pause for thought: Comfort, joy and peace
I have always loved this time of year. I have very happy memories of childhood Christmases – making decorations at school, singing carols and the excitement on Christmas morning with the empty stocking which had been hung up the night before now full of interesting shapes, and always a chocolate Santa sticking out of the top. My sister and I even used to manage to go 24 hours without arguing (much) – a very rare occurrence! I loved the Christmas story, and the wonder of Jesus’ birth; what I didn’t like was thinking about what came next. I really didn’t want to hear the part of the story where Herod murders babies, and I definitely didn’t want to hear any hint of Jesus’ eventual death, they weren’t very comfortable to hear at Christmas, I just wanted to think about the ‘nice’ bits of the story.
The truth is that we have tried to sanitize that first Christmas, actually it was not ‘nice’, it was very messy. While Joseph stood by Mary they may well have come in for a hard time from their family and friends when she got pregnant before they were married. Perhaps that’s why they seem to have done that long journey to Bethlehem alone. The journey itself was around 90 miles, through rough and dangerous countryside. We don’t actually know that Mary had a donkey to ride on, it is more likely she would have walked most, if not all, the way, whilst heavily pregnant. She would have been absolutely exhausted when they eventually arrived in Bethlehem, only to find nowhere to stay. We assume she gave birth in a stable as we know she put Jesus in a manger – not exactly a hygienic first bed. When Jesus was still a small child the family had to flee to another country to escape him being killed by Herod.
Jesus experienced poverty, homelessness and danger of violence right at the beginning of his life. His life continued to be messy; he can identify with what it’s like to be judged, betrayed and misunderstood. He came to bring hope into this messy world. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to create a good time at Christmas – I still love it. However even the best Christmas doesn’t stop life being messy, and for some Christmas just highlights issues such as loneliness, worries about finance, lost relationships. We may be able to create a good time for a while but we can never create perfection, because we are human. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come.” The hope of Christmas comes not from a perfect holiday season, but from knowing that in all the messiness of life, Jesus, whose birth we celebrate, wants to give us comfort, joy and peace no matter what our circumstances.