People grieve at Christmas. When we flip our calendars over to December, whatever difficulty, grief or trouble we’re dealing with doesn’t suddenly disappear in honor of the season. The parties, feel-good movies (here’s looking at you, Hallmark), and decorating can actually intensify feelings of sadness. Our reality doesn’t match what we’re “supposed” to be experiencing.

In Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus, we find a tragic, horrifying event. “When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under…” (Matthew 2:16). Some time after the miraculous coming of the Savior, Herod, in his lust for power and his determination to remove all rivals, ordered the killing of innocent little boys. Not thousands, as has sometimes been claimed; in the small community of Bethlehem, it was likely no more than thirty or so. But that is thirty heartbroken mothers and fathers. The pain of a few is no less than the pain of many.

This is the part of the Christmas story that doesn’t make it into the Christmas carols or the children’s pageants. There was no joy to the world for these stricken families. It wasn’t a triumphant, happy morning. In fact, their lives had just gotten much worse. The parents of these murdered babies and toddlers, who most certainly had heard about the angels announcing peace on earth, must have felt that a cruel joke had been played on them. Their lives were turned upside down, and everything they thought they knew about God was now suspect. Matthew quotes a lament from Jeremiah: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted because they are no more” (Matthew 2:17-18).

If we’re honest, we identify with these weeping mothers. Yes, we know that the world hasn’t yet been made right. We know that we live in a world of rebellion against God, and that innocent people suffer. But still, joy to the world feels elusive.

The problem is that we fail to separate the trappings that have come to define our celebration of Christmas (food, family, fun, cozy feelings, all our dreams come true) from the essence of Christmas – the Son of God coming to live with us. The trappings aren’t the problem exactly, because none of them are bad things in themselves. But their presence or absence can take center stage, making us forget that Christmas is about giving us what we really need, Jesus Himself. Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

That description gives us tremendous hope. It should make us sing. But Jesus is also a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, his own grief and ours. He came to a world of pain in order to redeem and remake it. This should comfort our bruised, hurting hearts and free us from the idea that we have to be happy clappy in order to celebrate Christmas properly. We can hold both things at the same time – the sadness and the hope.

Because a Merry Christmas isn’t a matter of denying our sadness, but a matter of the bedrock truth of God With Us. In that truth we can rejoice, even as we weep.

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