2016 has been the roughest year my family and I have endured in a LONG time. It’s been a year of heartbreak and frustration. And it’s not just our family who’s suffered, either. Everywhere you turn, there’s someone who’s been battered and bruised, too.
Think about it. There have been shootings in North Carolina, Texas, Louisiana, devastating earthquakes in Ecuador and Italy, a hurricane in Haiti, floods in Louisiana, another terrorist attack in France, wildfires in Tennessee, a mentally, emotionally exhausting election cycle, and harrowing massacres in Mosul and Aleppo.
And those are just international headlines. I could name off dozens of people much closer to home (including my parents, siblings, and myself) who’ve suffered staggering losses and setbacks in 2016.
People are grieving. We’re raw. The world is a cold, mean place this Christmas, and to be perfectly honest, the usual, silly merriment rings a little hollow.
In despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men”
–Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”
But here’s the thing I remembered this afternoon, while listening to that old Civil War-era carol: Baby Jesus didn’t come into a warm, holly-jolly world, either. He was born into an awful time period. You had a brutal regime imposing what basically amounted to a one-world government, you had a spoiled-brat dictator in Judea who had no qualms about massacring the babies of Bethlehem…and look, Baby Jesus himself was born to dirt-poor, displaced parents.
I bet the Virgin Mary knew what “raw” felt like. I like to think she struggled with the same things I do.
Maybe she was angry at the people in Nazareth who’d shunned her and talked trash about her behind her back. She’d conceived by supernatural means, and she’d accepted that high calling with amazing courage–but nobody else understood that. There were probably very few people (besides Joseph, of course) who believed, let alone respected her. A fine reward, she must’ve thought at some point or another, for simply trying to obey her Lord.
Maybe she was scared of the future. The news that she had to go to Bethlehem in spite of her advancing pregnancy must’ve felt like a kick in the teeth. After all, God had already asked her to be the mother of His Son, and now He’d allowed this high-and-mighty Roman emperor to demand a census right when she was about to have a baby?!
Maybe she was depressed by the suffering around her. Joseph and Mary would’ve grown up not just under Roman oppression, but under King Herod’s regime, too. There was no peace on Earth when Joseph and Mary made the long trek to Bethlehem. She must’ve felt so helpless, looking around at all the disheartened travelers around her.
But Mary still gave birth to God With Us in the middle of all that awful, gut-wrenching rawness, and in the moment when she first kissed the face of Almighty God I have to think she was able to say, in all painful, joyful honesty, “Oh yes…my soul really does glorify the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, because He has lifted up the humble, and He has filled the hungry with good things.” (Luke 1:46-47, 52b, 53a)
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep!
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men”
So yes, Christmas feels more somber this year, but that might not be a bad thing. Maybe the sheer awfulness of 2016 will coax us all into thinking on quieter, holier things this December. Maybe it’ll help us take a deep breath and remember, with quiet gratitude, that Christmas is about God becoming man, in the moment He was least expected.
And maybe, when “hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on Earth, goodwill to men”–maybe that’s when we can most loudly, tearfully sing, “God is not dead, nor doth he sleep.“