What is Christmas supposed to be?

My Dad spent more than three years in North Africa and Italy during World War II and never made it “home” for Christmas.  My mentor Rolf Hanson used to talk about spending one Christmas on his LST in a typhoon in the Pacific.  My good friend Jake Ryder spent Christmas 1944 with his Airborne band of brothers in the Ardennes Forest during the Battle of the Bulge.

In my ministry I’ve also spent time with people who were hospitalized or in hospice care at Christmas.  I’ve known dozens of people who had to work Christmas Eve or Christmas Day to care for the broken in body and spirit.  I also know that far too many spend the holidays alone because they have no family close by, or no close family at all.  And I’ve had funerals for people who died at Christmas.

These realities do not cancel out the wonderful Christmas celebrations in sanctuaries and homes that fill the days with meaning and thanksgiving for some of us.  But these realities do give me good reason to appreciate the verse in the carol that speaks “to you beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low, who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow…”

The angels speak in the Christmas story about God’s glory.  Before glory means something “miraculously magnificent” or “awesome beyond description,” glory means God’s presence.  Like a different angel told Joseph, the son Mary bore would be “Emmanuel, which means God with us.”

Finally that must be what the message of Christmas is–“Emmanuel, God with us”–in any and all circumstances of our lives, whether we are celebrating or suffering, or just hoping to survive another day.

That is our comfort too, for those of us who mourn loved ones who have died.  The promise that God is with them too, or that they are given new life with Emmanuel, is no doubt the greatest gift of all.