The tree is trimmed and decorated and glowing with lights. The gifts are wrapped and tied with bows and arranged carefully beneath. The stockings are hung by the fire and bulging with trinkets and surprises and sweet delicacies. The table is set and waiting for a great feast to be laid out upon it. Christmas has come again—again with all its joys, with all its pleasures, with all its precious traditions.
But look again, look more carefully, look and see that there are fewer gifts than there were in years past. There is one less stocking than there was before. The table has been set with one less place. When the family gathers to celebrate this year, there will be one member who will not be gathering with the rest, one person who will not be home for Christmas, one person who will be sorely missed.
This will be the reality for so many families this season, so many families who have had to bid farewell to one of their own. And never do those losses stand out so starkly, never do they cut so deep, never do they cause so much pain as during the holidays, as during times of celebration. For holidays are about gathering with the ones we love, spending time with the ones God has given us, observing the season together.
This will be the reality for my family this Christmas, for just a couple of years ago, the Lord saw fit to call one of us to himself. Nick was seemingly healthy and well, thriving in life and preparing himself for marriage and pastoral ministry, when he very suddenly collapsed and died and was gone. Christmas has never been the same. Christmas never will be the same, never can be the same, for our little fellowship has been shattered, our little family has suffered a grievous loss, our little home circle has been broken.
My mind sometimes drifts back to the evening we learned the news that broke our hearts and changed our lives. My mind sometimes drifts back to the thought that flashed through it in that moment when my entire world was rocked: God knows what it is to have a son and God knows what it is to lose a son. And this thought reminds me today that even though Christmas is the day when the pain of my loss is particularly sharp, it is also the day when my hope is particularly strong. For without Christmas I would be despondent, but because of Christmas I have the greatest of all hopes.
The wonder of the Christian faith, the miracle that we celebrate every Christmas, is that God became man. The Son of God who had existed from all eternity, the God who had been present at the creation of the world, the God who holds together all things by the word of his power, took on flesh and was born as a weak, helpless, crying baby. He grew up surrounded by the chaos and sin of this world, he proclaimed the glorious message God had given him, and at the end of it all, he was crucified and died. The Father witnessed the death of his beloved Son.
But that is not the whole story, of course, for death could not hold him! Death could not keep back the one who lived a sinless life and died an atoning death. He left the tomb and ascended to heaven and now prepares a place for each of us who have loved him and believed in his name and received his forgiveness.
In order to save us, Christ had to die for us. And in order to die for us, Christ had to live for us. And in order to live for us, Christ had to be born for us. It is at Christmas that we tell the beginning of the story of his incarnation, at Christmas that we celebrate his birth, at Christmas that we mark the dawning of hope. For when Christ was born on Christmas morning, hope was born with him—the hope that our loved ones are not lost forever, but merely separated from us for a time, the hope that though we may grieve for a while, sorrow will at last give way to a joy beyond all we’ve known or even imagined. Our hope and our confidence is rooted and grounded in this day.
I wish Nick could be in our home this year to celebrate Christmas with us. But I know God has called him to a different home, a higher home, what I know to be a better home. And if Nick is experiencing nothing but happiness, as I truly believe he is, why would I spend the day in nothing but sadness? Why should I mourn as he rejoices? And so as we gather to celebrate Christmas, we’ll pause for at least a time to turn our hearts away from this home and instead fix them on the home above, the home where there is a much greater celebration, the home where Nick dwells with his Savior. We will fix our hearts on the time when all our tears will be dried and the time when the circle that has been broken will be fully and finally restored. And then we will return to celebrating the wonder of that baby in a manger, for this is the day when he was born—the day when hope was born.
Tim Challies is a pastor, blogger and book reviewer living in Canada.