[Virginia's note: This was written in December 2002 -- and still as applicable as ever! As many of you know, my mother-in-law passed away the following September, full of Jesus.]
It’s Christmastime, and life is supposed to be jolly! But it’s not, at least not always. For many of us, this Advent season brings a strong sense of the bittersweet aspects of real life.
Several weeks ago, as I was speaking to a home school group, I commented my family is “swimming in stress soup” right now, with unemployment, an exhausting pregnancy, and all the other niggling challenges of life in a large home schooling family. Little did I know what was to come! My wonderful mother-in-law, who has been quite ill this past month, was diagnosed with a second case of cancer, this time inoperable. My dear husband Thad has been taking care of her and tending to her business matters almost full-time since she has been sick, which actually makes me thankful for this period of “unemployment.” As we await more test results, and then see her through chemotherapy and radiation, the future remains uncertain.
I know that we aren’t the only ones in the midst of trials. I hear from so many of you who are facing illness or death, either for yourself or in your families. Some of you sorely miss loved ones who have passed away, or are just far away in other cities. Some of you have spouses who are being deployed to the Middle East or other far-flung locations for our national defense. (And God bless you for it!) Some of you have simmering and even boiling conflicts with family or friends, which alienate you during this season of supposed “peace on earth, goodwill to men.” Some of you are on what could charitably be called a “tight budget,” and like us, are doing your Christmas shopping at the dollar store and the clearance bins. And some of you are just plain tired from running all over town searching for just the right gifts, or chauffeuring children to endless holiday events that require hours of preparation and fancy clothes that will only be worn once.
Yes, the Advent season can be bittersweet, even in the middle of jolly parties, holiday baking, tree trimming and gift wrapping.
May I offer a few observations and encouragement?
The manger was not filled with tinsel, and I don’t think there were any candy canes or mistletoe hung overhead either! That first Christmas, joyous as it was, spangled with the Star of Bethlehem, heralded by an angelic chorus -- was still bittersweet. Imagine being God the Son, leaving the glory of Heaven, and being plopped into a scratchy, smelly barn to be raised by lowly humans, and later, mocked and crucified by those you came to save. That’s a real life Christmas. Life on earth was no vacation for our Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ. He came to serve, not be served. Likewise, we should be about our Father’s business, not just expecting everything to be automatically perfect just because it is December. As we face the challenges, we should have a multi-faceted approach.
First, we trust that God has allowed each circumstance to enter our lives for our enrichment in the faith. If we have confidence in the sovereign grace of God, who controls all things, we can not only survive the trials, but learn and grow through them. At least they will cause us to learn harder on our gracious Lord, who wants us to depend on Him and not ourselves anyway.
Second, we look for practical ways to minimize the extra stress by dealing with the realities of life. For example, we can reduce our expectations of what Christmas needs to be. Much of our overload is caused because we are trying to create unrealistic images or experiences for our children. This causes us to overspend and overschedule, just cramming it all in. Slow down! Spend less! Learn to savor the relationships you have with family and friends -- you never know when this will be the last Christmas you will see or talk to a loved one! If those relationships are ailing, we must seek to repair and restore them, rather than shoving the problems under the carpet. Preferably this could be done right now, so you aren’t trying to hastily patch things up over the sweet potato casserole at the Christmas dinner table.
Third, we should find little ways to follow Jesus’ example of serving. If you are not personally going through trials right now, I can assure you that someone you know is suffering, perhaps in silence. Please be sensitive to this, so that you won’t blithely blunder through the holidays! Find a way to extend the healing grace of God. For some, this will be as simple as writing a sweet note to a discouraged friend or a check to a charitable organization. Other families might be involved in some sort of service project -- caroling at the nursing home, serving food at the homeless shelter, or delivering gifts to a needy family. It takes our minds off our own troubles when we help those who may be even less fortunate than we are. It can remove the root of selfishness that clamors for our own needs to be met, and instead plant the seeds of compassion.
Above all, let us seek to glorify the One whom we celebrate in this Advent season, bittersweet as it may be.