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Decorations, parties, special foods, Santa Claus, carols, and pageants -- everyone loves Christmas, right? Wrong. Not everyone does, because not everyone can. This time of year is tough for those who dread the flood of childhood memories that are anything but happy, grieve the loss of someone close to them, or are otherwise overwhelmed by loneliness or regret. That's because the expectations of joy that we attach to Christmas tend to magnify any emptiness and pain we might feel.
It's tempting to drown out the desperation, gloss over the gloom, or hide the misery in mistletoe. But I think that looking reality in the face is a good idea, even during this time of year--perhaps especially at this time of year. I'm convinced that all the tinsel and toys and the talk of good little girls and boys obscure the fact that Christmas exists because of human suffering and not in spite of it.
The amazing thing is that God is attracted by the poverty and filth that repulses most of us. If you're not so sure about that, consider that the Most High and Eternal God chose -- yes, chose -- to be born in a stable. The more hopeless a situation is, the more God intervenes. The further we move from him, the closer he draws to us. God does not hesitate to make himself at home in our spiritual squalor. He seeks us out in the darkest nights of our coldest winters. He comes to save us because we so obviously need a savior. He enters the mess we've made of everything he created in order to bring about a whole new creation.
The happy things we do at Christmas help us to more fully understand and receive the joy God offers us in Jesus Christ. But those who struggle with the holidays, who find these cheery days difficult, have something to offer, too. Their sorrow reminds us that our ultimate hope is found in God alone; that the Lord does not come to us as a summer companion, but as a refuge from the storms both around us and within us.
Our God stops at nothing. There is no sin, no failure, no disappointment, no fear that is greater than his desire to be with us -- to be Emmanuel. And there is nothing that should keep us from receiving him into our hearts. Sin, shame, fear, doubt, inadequacy, regret, and unworthiness mean far less to God than they do to us. While such things may prevent us from loving one another or accepting ourselves, they do not present much of a barrier to God's love. Jesus Christ was born into the world as it is to be with people as they are.
There is a cute little commercial for a British store that has been airing lately. It's a story about an animal who has never experienced Christmas -- a bear who misses the holiday because he hibernates through it. His friend, a rabbit, leaves a gift at the door of the bear's cave as he sleeps. When Christmas arrives, the animals gather around a beautifully decorated tree. They are all surprised to see the bear come to join them. The bear is finally able to celebrate Christmas because the gift the rabbit left was an alarm clock.
I pray for a church full of such "rabbits": for people who will take the time and initiative to awaken all those who sleep through Christmas in pain or fear or isolation of any kind. I pray too for all those who suffer when others celebrate: that they come to realize that in Christ there are no victims and no outcasts, and that the one swaddled and lying in a manger can heal every hurt. That's what Christmas is for.
Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a wife and mother of eight children, and a disciple of the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales. She is an inspirational author, speaker, musician and serves as an Associate Children's Editor at Pauline Books and Media.