For many years I provided a Blue Christmas service at church in December. It was not a big crowd-pleaser but was meaningful to the small group who gathered. I’ve tended to be one to swim against the tide and the Blue Christmas service for me was a protest against the superficiality of the season, as well as an attempt to encourage those who experience real suffering at the holidays. There is a depression which affects some people during these shortest and coldest days of the year. Add to that the stress of expectations of happiness at Christmas and the memory of losses it is no wonder that a hidden and sizable number of people suffer major sadness.
It is salutary to read the stories of Jesus’ birth in Matthew and Luke’s Gospel – of loyalty and betrayal, of love and murderous anger, of sober realism and angelic visions. Contrary to the folklore of Santa and his elves and the fantasy that every dream comes true at Christmas, the Bible story is pretty much grounded. Mary is indeed blessed to find a husband who will stand by her; Joseph is blessed by gaining a deeply compassionate wife; the Magi are not fooled by the words of the wily Herod; the shepherds are down-to-earth folk, an echo of the humble origins of the great king David; the flight to Egypt to escape the murderous rage of a tyrant reflects the contemporary situation of too many refugees. For those who feel downtrodden Mary’s Song is especially meaningful as God lifts up the poor ones: “he has lifted up the lowly and has filled the hungry with good things” (Luke 1:52-53). Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, in his song, the Benedictus, assures us that the darkness is not victorious for the dawn comes upon us in the child born in Bethlehem:
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness …
and guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1:78-79)
The birth stories in Matthew and Luke contain the good news of Jesus Christ in miniature. The pain and suffering of life are acknowledged, not denied. But the stories are anchored in the strong hope of Christ’s victory over death and suffering and in the presence of God in every human life.
Sometimes the most meaningful ministry moments at Christmas come in the sad times. I remember the greeting of an elderly Irish woman in a nursing home where I provided a monthly communion service for many years: “A holy Christmas to you” she said. Her greeting and her face revealed a deep spiritual life which had come to terms with the losses of life yet had risen above them with a smile.