By Emily Pilkington
For some of us, the idea of celebrating Christmas this year feels easy and exciting. Perhaps you can’t wait to pull all of the decorations out of your attic and sing Christmas carols that match the mood of the season. For others of us, the holiday season feels far from the most wonderful time of the year.
Like most people, I’ve lived through seasons of both. As a single woman in my late-twenties, Christmas often felt like a big reminder that I was spending yet another holiday season alone. The weight of this unmet expectation stung in a very acute way around the holidays.
After I got married, my husband and I struggled with infertility for two consecutive Christmases. The second Christmas in particular felt especially hard. Surgery and multiple rounds of treatment had failed to produce the results we had desperately hoped for. While countless friends announced pregnancies and shared happy family Christmas card photos, my heart hurt.
Two years ago, my husband and I sat across the table from a specialist who shared our son’s difficult brain MRI and diagnosis with us a few days before Christmas. I remember walking into a store the next day and having to turn around and leave. The festive displays and music were too much for my heart to bear.
When I Hang Christmas Lights
Nothing reminds me that Christmas is more than sentimental, Hallmark moments than hard, heavy things. These hard things make the rest feel shallow and empty. Maybe Christmas feels broken to you too this year. Perhaps a divorce, the loss of a family member, loneliness, or another one of the countless ways our world is not the way it should be has it feeling extra hard.
In 2009, Dave shared a sermon entitled “The Jesus Before Christmas”. This has stayed with me through the ups and downs of every holiday season since. In it he says,
“So hang some Christmas lights up and let those lights shining in the darkness be a sign. Not a sign of tradition or a sign of better years gone by. Not a sign of family, or of memories, or of nostalgia. Because the more we think Christmas is about family in that way or nostalgia or tradition, the more it will eventually bring us grief and sadness. The loss of family is unavoidable in this dark world. Pretty soon all our realities will be replaced by memories and nostalgia.
Don’t put Christmas lights up for that…When you get out your lights, let it be a sign to you that, no matter how great your darkness is, God has not abandoned you to the darkness.”
Each year I’ve done just what Dave suggested:
I’ve hung lights as a tangible reminder of Jesus, the Light of the World. The God who came to be with us and rescue us from our darkness, our brokenness, and our pain. Each night I’ve pulled into the driveway to our lit-up house, I’ve felt a deep sense of comfort as I remember to believe this truth about what Christmas is actually all about.
In many ways, Dave’s words are an invitation to press into the season of Advent which helps us not just to celebrate, but also to lament, grieve, and mourn. It’s an opportunity to reflect, not just on the humble birth of Jesus, but also on our wait for his return in glory.
During this season, we are reminded that waiting, longing, and angst are very much a part of the Christian life. Just as God’s people and prophets groaned and ached for the Messiah hundreds of years ago, we too groan and ache for Christ to return and make everything sad come untrue.
The Reason I Rejoice
In his book What Jesus Demands from the World, John Piper writes,
“When Jesus demands that we rejoice, he has not forgotten the kind of world we live in. It is filled with suffering…For Jesus the demand for joy is a way to live with suffering and to outlast suffering. Therefore, this joy is serious. It’s the kind you fight for by cutting off your hand (Matt. 5:30) and selling your possessions (Matt. 13:44) and carrying a cross with Jesus to Calvary (Matt. 10:38-39). It has scars. It sings happy songs with tears. And it remembers the dark hours and knows that more are coming. The road to heaven is a hard road, but it is not joyless.”
This type of rejoicing is what Advent is all about: a deep, serious, abiding joy. A joy that doesn’t ignore the pain of life but doesn’t buckle underneath its weight either. It acknowledges the difficulty but continues to trust, hope, and rest in a faithful, loving God.
Advent gives all of us, but especially those of us who are hurting, permission to celebrate in a real way each December. We can sing happy songs with tears. We don’t have to pretend that all is right with the world. After all, until Jesus returns, the truth is that it isn’t.
Celebrating Advent reminds us that Christmas is—at its core—about a God who enters into our suffering and pain. And who keeps his promises.
If you are hurting this December, my prayer is that you would know the God of all Hope and Comfort in a way that few of us can apart from walking with him through a difficult season. I pray that every time you drive past Christmas lights they would point you not to shallow, trite, or empty cultural rituals, but to the Light of the World
Light in the Night
I also hope you’ll join me watching Light in the Night: An Online Christmas Experience.
Over the years God has used The Crossing’s Christmas service to remind me that he is Immanuel—the God who is with us and for us in our unmet expectations, our hurt, our loneliness, and our grief. It’s a space that has felt safe to celebrate, especially in the years where my life didn’t match the elusive cultural myth about what Christmas should look like.
Light in the Night is live now! Click below to watch.