For some, it's the lighted Christmas tree in the living room that says the Christmas season is underway. Others feel it when they first hear carols coming out of the stereo, see lighted displays on the nighttime drive home from work, or smell gingerbread baking in the oven. But nothing puts the holiday happiness in my heart like seeing my Christmas decorations on top of my kitchen cabinets once more. Twinkling colored lights twisted through a lengthy garland edge a display of stuffed Christmas characters interspersed with decorated shopping bags and holiday-themed plates. In the course of the nearly thirty years we have lived in this house, certain items have laid claim to their own positions in the display. Stuffed versions of Rudolph and Clarice insist on being placed directly over the oven, their noses almost touching as if kissing under invisible mistletoe, while the Abominable Snowman roars menacingly from a nearby corner. A lamb sleeps in a lion's arms at the other end of the cabinetry, representing the peace of the season, while penguins, snowmen and gingerbread people wave merrily at any who happen to look in their direction. As much as I love each of the individual elements of the display, it's the lights that make it special to me.
Nothing speaks hope in a darkened world like a string of brightly twinkling lights. That's why I was devastated to look up one day early in the season and see that a section of the garland in the center of the display had gone dark. Everything else about the display was still in place; the reindeer still posed, the snowmen still waved, and the Christmas bags still displayed their messages of goodwill. But it seemed meaningless and joyless somehow without the lights winding through it all.
Some of you know exactly what I mean. The light has gone out of your Christmas this year and you find yourself just going through the motions without the joy that makes the holiday season so bright. It could be a break in a relationship with a loved one that has dimmed your delight; a death in the family, an absent face and an empty place at the dinner table. Maybe the loss of a job or your health or your home has robbed you of the means to celebrate as you have done in years gone by. Whatever the cause, you have lost your hope of a happy holiday season this year.
Some of us deal with these difficulties by just opting out. We decide to just skip Christmas this year. We vow to celebrate as usual again next year when we feel more in the spirit of things. And in doing so we miss the chance to have the most precious holiday season of any that's gone before...because never have we needed it more. Christmas is fun when things are going well in life. But it's true meaning is discovered when things are not going as planned...when life is interrupted by some unexpected darkness.
The message of Christmas is that God is with us in the midst of our trouble. Even when we feel most alone, He is aware of our situation, collecting our tears, and counting the days till the culmination arrives. Surely God was with Mary long before the actual birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. She physically carried the Answer to her prayers during the days of her humiliating pregnancy...on that long jolting ride on the back of a donkey...in those painful hours of delivery in the hay of a stable floor. It was at the height of her distress that Hope was born, and she was suddenly able to see and hold the baby whose very name spoke the Christmas message: Emmanuel, “God is with us.”
And so it can be for you. The wonder of a difficult Christmas is the opportunity to learn anew that though your circumstances might be challenging, you are not alone in them. Hope is longing to be born anew in their midst. As you travel the difficult road to your own personal Bethlehem, know that there is help available to those who are struggling to find their way. What a lesson there is for us in that even the wise men searching for Jesus had to stop and ask for direction, not once but multiple times. There is an often overlooked Christmas gift tucked into the paragraphs of the Bible describing the event. Hidden in the story are the words, “And receiving an answer to their asking, they were divinely instructed...” (Matthew 9:12 AMP, emphasis mine). They asked what to do, and received an answer. We can do the same.
My kitchen garland is shining brightly again now. My husband had bought extra short strings of lights at the end of the season last year, and offered one to me. I was able to weave the new strand in with the old to get me through this year until I can buy a new garland at a later date. And so it is with the more serious aspects of this holiday season. If you're struggling in any way, ask for help, especially of God, and receive with joy and thanksgiving the assistance that comes in a wide variety of forms. Your Christmas may be patched rather than perfect, but it can be perfectly wonderful, just the same.
“Direct my footsteps according to your word...”
(Psalm 119:133 NIV)