The Darkness Behind Christmas

by Jeremy Lutjens, Pastoral Resident at Veritas Short North

I’ve always been a sucker for the Christmas season. In December you’ll probably find me watching Buddy the Elf journey through the seven layers of the Candy Cane Forest or rocking out to Michael Bublé’s latest yuletide jams. Recently however it’s become a struggle for me just to make it through the holidays. Past hurts and broken relationships rob me of the cheer that so many seem to have.

Many of us experience Christmas with festive happiness, bitter sadness, or some mix of both. But whether we get swept up with the merriments of the season or fight to find any good spirits through it all, we can easily miss the truly profound news that Christmas brings.

‘Jesus is the reason for the season’ right? Let’s be honest, this statement basically is as corny as it is unhelpful. It’s not hard to realize that Christmas is a holiday about Christ…it’s in the name. But the reality is that to most of us, including myself, Jesus just doesn’t seem as appealing as all the festivities or as real as all our pains.

Part of the reason we can be so unaffected by the advent of Christ is that we’ve either forgotten or never really known what happened that night. For us to grasp the real hope of Christmas and actually be thrilled by Christ himself more deeply than the lights and presents, we must face the darkness that made the first Christmas necessary. As theologian Luke Stamps wrote, “Bethlehem’s star is only visible against the black sky of sin and death.”

Consider the world we live in. The news headlines are just a snapshot of the hate, abuse, and rivalry that have plagued our societies throughout history. Though it may be harder to notice, this evil exists in our offices and neighborhoods too. Fractured friendships, selfish ambitions, and subtle cruelties are all around us. Jesus taught that inside every mall shopper, Christmas caroler, and family member is a valuable person, made in the image of God, who has rebelled against their Creator and is in dire need of salvation.

We should be able to observe this darkness most in our own hearts. Have you been self-centered, prideful, or unloving even in the last week? I know I have. And it goes much deeper than that. We all use and hurt those around us. We all treasure our personal success and security over the God who made us. We all ultimately reject His lordship by choosing to spend our time, energy, and resources building up our own little kingdoms where we are on the throne. Because we have committed this cosmic treason against God the grim reality is that we don’t deserve a happy holiday but a horrible hell.

This is undoubtably a difficult and weighty claim that shouldn’t be simplistically understood or blindly accepted but thoughtfully explored and personally wrestled with. But if it is true, no Christmas gift or religious ritual, romantic relationship or family legacy, job promotion or retirement plan can save us from being separated from the goodness of God now and forever.

This was the same bleak reality on one cold night in the 1st century among the hills of the Palestinian wilderness. A group of sheep herders were tirelessly working in their fields when a terrifying messenger from God suddenly appeared above them. Our tired Christmas traditions make this a palatable and boring scene, but imagine how shocked and afraid they must have been! A mysterious radiant being was hovering right over these ordinary working class men.

The imposing herald then looked at the shepherds and compassionately declared, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” The dreary darkness that surrounded them every night as they tended their flocks instantly changed. The sky lit up as a massive army of brilliant heavenly creatures began to shout in unison, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” God had come to save.

This is the bright hope of Christmas! The King of the universe entered into our hopeless world as a fragile human baby. He grew to be a humble teacher who illuminated to humanity what life is all about. He was then ultimately condemned as a criminal who was beaten, mocked, and killed. But he did this in love in the place of those sinners who would trust in him. Theologian John Stott explained, “The essence of sin is man substituting himself for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for man.” Though we deserve death for our sin, Christ came and died to give us life. He then rose from the dead to restore us to God and He will one day return again to set all things right. As the prophet Isaiah put it, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined.”

To contemplate the darkness behind Christmas isn’t to suck the fun out of this time, or to give in to the difficulty of the season, but rather to embrace our need to receive and remember the incomparable gift of Jesus. So if you enjoy the Christmas festivities, go ahead and chug that third glass of eggnog as you watch Kevin McCallister defend his house from bandits in Home Alone. If Christmas is a painful time for you, we want to grieve and process that alongside you. But for you and I to find the greater hope beyond a fun and challenging season, we have to take the time to reflect on the sin and sorrow of our world and of our hearts. Only then will we be able to truly celebrate deep within us as we turn our eyes to Christ and sing:

Long lay the world in sin and error pining.
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices!
O night divine, the night when Christ was born!