Even before I became a Christian, the Christmas season always intrigued me. During the darkest and coldest time of the year, here was a holiday dedicated to joy and light. It didn’t fit. But in a way that I couldn’t quite articulate, I liked that it didn’t fit. I was drawn in by the seeming paradox of light in the midst of darkness, even if I didn’t (yet) believe any of the strange stories about God being born in a barn.
In the years that followed, however, I began to learn that what I had experienced as a quaint paradox, others had experienced as an outright lie. To many, the joy of Christmas contradicted the pain and sorrow of their lives. Songs encouraging them to “be of good cheer” were cold comfort in the midst of death, infertility, or addiction. These people knew the darkness of December, but could not believe the light of Christmas.
Perhaps you understand where they were coming from. For you, Christmas reminds you of the loved one no longer sitting at your table, of the broken relationship that should have lasted forever, of the ongoing illness that continues to wrack your body with pain. Even if you aren’t in a season of suffering, you probably know and love people who are. As Victor Hugo once wrote, “Those who do not weep, do not see.” Brokenness seems to be the heart language of the world, and while some of us speak that language more fluently than others, we all learn to speak it eventually.
In the midst of a world of heartache, we may want to shrug Christmas off as naïvely optimistic. And we aren’t the first generation to think so.
On Christmas Day in 1863, right in the middle of the American Civil War, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem titled, “Christmas Bells.” Set to music a few years later, Longfellow’s poem wrestled with the darkness of his world head on. The opening refrain sets the scene:
I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Like us, Longfellow knew the joyful themes of Christmas. Peace on earth! Good will to men! But he also knew that his world looked nothing like that. “The cannon thundered in the South,” his poem continues, “And with the sound / The carols drowned.” How could he sing of peace on earth when his nation was enmeshed in the bloodiest war in its history? Wasn’t such celebration foolish, even offensive? So Longfellow let pain take the pen. His second-to-last stanza captures the cynicism of his age and ours:
And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
There is a version of Christmas that only promotes simple joys—quiet snowfalls, quality time with family, gifts under the tree. I’m not opposed to simple joys, but that version of Christmas can’t stand up against a stiff breeze, let alone the evils of the Civil War.
What we need to remember, though, is that this quaint version of Christmas is a lie. The very first Christmas involved Mary and Joseph sleeping outside with animals. As it turned out, these rugged birth conditions were just the beginning. Soon Mary, Joseph, and the newborn Jesus were on the run for their lives, fleeing a homicidal king. The night that the angels sang, “Peace on earth, good will to men,” God’s people, Israel, were under the oppressive thumb of Rome.
From Jesus’ first birthday until today, hate has always mocked the song the angels sang. But far from proving Christmas to be a lie, this shows us the very reason Christmas was necessary. The darkness in our world is strong. Violence reigns. Hate multiplies. This is why Jesus came into the world—not to give us a sentimental holiday, but to take on the yoke of suffering and sin. He came to bear the darkness in his own body, to absorb our violence in his flesh. He came to bring peace—to be the Prince of Peace—but in history’s greatest surprise, that peace came through his sacrificial death.
I love the final stanza of Longfellow’s poem:
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”
God is not dead—not in our world, and not in your life. How do we know? Because the same God who took on flesh at Christmas already died for us on Good Friday—and then walked out of the grave three days later.