“Jingle Bells,” “Joy to the World,” and “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” are just a few songs declaring the happiness of Christmas. But what happens if you feel sad or stressed at this time? Does it mean your faith is weak? Does it mean you have no Christmas spirit? In reality, the season may not always be filled with joyful moments. In fact, the holidays can often bring about stress and sadness, and I think that acknowledging this is possibly one way to capture the true joy and meaning behind it all.
I hope this isn’t interpreted as a scrooge-like perspective. Looking back on the traditional narrative A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge is certainly not a character any of us likely want to emulate. Still, every time I read the story or watch the movie, I’m reminded of how there can be a little scrooge in me at any time of year when I allow the stresses of life to distract from its many blessings.
To be real and honest here, it was only last week that I was feeling a bit down. I wouldn’t say that I was feeling ungrateful, but I knew I wasn’t feeling as happy as I’d like, and I couldn’t really figure out why. Nothing terribly traumatic had happened. I had plenty of good things going on, but there were simply things weighing on my heart. I asked friends to pray for me, talked to my husband, and spent a lot of time praying about this, and while instant happiness didn’t occur, I did begin to feel better. Worries that were feeling heavy began to lighten. Problems seeming unsolvable seemed possible. Essentially, hope and love began to fill my mind, which is after all what Christmas is all about – hope and light in the dark and troubling places of our world and our lives.
Before Jesus’s birth, John the Baptist repeated the words of the prophet Isaiah: “I am a voice shouting in the wilderness, ‘Clear the way for the Lord’s coming!’” John 1:23 (NLT)
These words from Isaiah continue in this way:
“Make a straight highway through the wasteland for our God! Fill in the valleys, and level the mountains and hills. Straighten the curves, and smooth out the rough places.” Isaiah 40:3-5 (NLT)
This passage in Isaiah has become one of my favorites. Last year at this time I remember sharing it with a group of high schoolers in youth group. I hadn’t yet taken on the position as youth director, but was leading a few Bible studies with them, and on this occasion I asked them to think about the “valleys,” or low places that needed filling in their lives, the “mountains,” or seemingly impossible things they faced, and the “curvy or rough” places that needed to be straightened or smoothed out. I had them write those things down, place them in a bag, and then we gave these burdens over to God in prayer. After we prayed, I told them I would continue to pray for them and handed them a small gift box meant to be a reminder of the gift of God’s constant love and presence with them even when life feels difficult.
As I reflect on this past year, in which I have come to know this group of young people even more, this prayer to remember God’s love and presence has been a consistent one. God’s love is always present, but our awareness of it is sometimes cloudy. As life’s distractions creep in, the determination to bring in God’s presence has to become stronger, and prayer is quite honestly the best way to do that. It’s sometimes the only way I know to bring help to a situation that seems helpless or completely out of my control.
The birth of Jesus occurred hundreds of years after the prophet Isaiah spoke words proclaiming a messiah. It came when many were tired, poor, in need of a savior. Jesus’s birth came after a long period of waiting. It didn’t come when everything was merry and bright. It didn’t come when everyone was full of joy and all was right in the world. It came when people needed hope. So today, when we feel like things are not as they should be, Jesus comes in. He is Emmanuel, God with us, through every mountain and valley of our days.
Recently, someone confided in me and a few others that he was feeling down, that while everything was going fine, there was still this feeling of unhappiness. We talked about how it could be coming from an overloaded schedule, or how sometimes a bunch of little things can pile up and bring us down, or how this time of year can sometimes bring on difficult feelings. Our final solution, after not having a definitive reason for the unhappy feelings, was prayer, something he has been consistently doing. He is taking it honestly and boldly to God every day. I told him I would do the same, and I know that others who were part of this conversation will also be praying for him. Today as I thought about him and others I know who are struggling, I read this in the book of Ephesians:
“You are members of God’s family. Together, we are his house, built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. And the cornerstone is Christ Jesus himself. We are carefully joined together in him, becoming a holy temple for the Lord.” Ephesians 2:19-21 (NLT)
Because Christmas can bring up memories of people we love or miss, the thought that we are part of God’s family brings comfort and strength. In addition to our personal family, we have others who pray for us, bring us joy, and are simply there for us. Yesterday at our youth group Christmas party, one of the high schoolers who hadn’t been able to come to our group events in a while said the group was still a really important family to her. I love that she used those words! The promise of being included in God’s family is one we can all count on and a gift we can all give each other at Christmas and all year long. I am truly so grateful for this gift.
As I read on in Ephesians, I was reminded of this perfect prayer that Paul prayed:
“I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in our hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God.
Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think. Glory to him in the church and in Christ Jesus through all generations forever and ever! Amen.” Ephesians 3:16-21 (NLT)
After I read this, I noticed the song that was repeating in my mind. It was “Angels we have heard on High” sung by Phil Wickham. It’s a beautiful version of this song that I encourage anyone who reads this to listen to at some point this week.
The part repeating in my mind was this:
In excelsis Deo, in excelsis Deo
Gloria, Gloria in excelsis Deo.
Come to Bethlehem and see
In whose birth the angels sing
Come, adore on bended knee
Christ, the Lord, the newborn king.
I looked out my window and saw this beautiful sky, one that only a loving, powerful God, who is gloriously above yet forever close, could possibly create. I felt his loving presence. I couldn’t stop a tear from entering my eye. And I felt so very, very grateful to be a child of God.
May you feel God’s tender, unending, loving presence with you this Christmas season and always, and whether you’re having a joyful day or a hard one, remember to look up and keep praying. God promises to listen, to love, and to lift you up.
“But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength. They will soar high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint.” Isaiah 40:31