I know of a number of families for whom it may be hard this year—those dealing with tight funds, burglary, hurting relationships, cancer, grief. Christmas was hard for me a few years ago, when my family had moved from out of state into a rather difficult living situation in someone else’s home.
One day that season, an old carol I found myself singing struck me anew. It had never been one of my favorites—not like “Silent Night,” “Joy to the World,” or “O Come All Ye Faithful.” But now I seemed to be listening to the words for the first time.
God rest ye merry, gentlemen
Let nothing you dismay
Remember Christ our Savior
Was born on Christmas Day
To save us all from Satan’s power
When we were gone astray
O tidings of comfort and joy
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy.
In the past I had often inserted the comma before the “merry” in this song, rendering it merely a polite greeting to cheerful folk. But somewhere I learned that the proper Old English meaning is “God keep you merry”—despite circumstances, despite how I might be feeling. The reason came in the rest of the song.
Jesus did not come amid ideal circumstances. They certainly mustn’t have seemed so to Mary and Joseph. But in a way, I’m thankful He didn’t—because it means that no matter what heartache or struggle we’re going through, Christmas is never irrelevant.
I remember returning from a Thanksgiving college mission trip to Mexico to the beginning of Christmas bustle and preparations on campus. If Christmas were only about Santa and decorations and commercialism, I don’t think I would have wanted to celebrate it at all after the poverty and pain I had just seen. But it isn’t. It’s about God coming into our world, among and as and for the “least of these” I had just come from. At a time when I wanted to withdraw from a lot, the hope and meaning of Christmas grew more precious than ever.
Jesus came not to take us out of our troubles, though He will someday, but to be with us in them. He didn’t take away from Mary and Joseph the challenge of an unplanned and unfathered pregnancy, a difficult journey, no room at the inn, having to flee from Herod. But He was with them in the midst of it all. And He is with us, if we will let Him be—amid illness and unemployment and hurting marriages and our own sinfulness that He came to save us from.
That is Immanuel.
And therein are true tidings of comfort and joy.
“Therefore you too have grief now; but I will see you again, and your heart will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you.” ~John 16:22