COMMENTARY: There’s more to the Christmas story than joy and cheer

Local pastor Mark Wagner writes about the complex feelings the Christmas season can bring.

Two Decembers ago, my beloved grandfather Poppy (who at the time was 98 years old) began sensing in his own mind and body that his days were numbered.

He began calling my mom in the middle of the night, filled with dread and sadness as he believed his body was beginning to fail him. On Christmas day, as he opened the gift I had purchased for him, he wept (this was unusual for Poppy as he wasn’t a crier). He shared with my mom a few days later that he might be dying.

As it turns out, he was right.

Two months later, Poppy took his final breaths in this world and drifted into the arms of eternal love. His decline was fast, thankfully, and he passed just before we entered the first COVID lockdown, which was a blessing because my Poppy, like me, was an extreme extrovert and the isolation would have been brutal on him.

Since his death, the Christmas season has taken on a slightly different meaning for me. I see little things that remind me of him, sometimes I get sad when I realize he won’t be there at my parents’ house to meet us when we arrive for our good old-fashioned tender Tennessee Christmas celebration.

For those that have experienced loss, Christmas can be especially hard because it seems like every song or holiday movie is about celebrating with family and friends, and these can be a painful reminder that our loved one is gone. As a pastor, I often feel like it’s my job to make people feel happy and hopeful at Christmas time.

As if every sermon I preach, or every song I sing, should be an uplifting anthem of joy and cheer. But if all I ever talked about at Christmastime was laughter and cheer then I would be ignoring the real meaning of the season.

The truth is, the first Christmas, when Jesus Christ was born (go tell it on the mountain!), wasn’t such a light and cheerful event at all. In fact, the wonder of the birth of Jesus is that he was born to bring a message of hope and redemption into a world of turmoil during a time of great trial for the Jewish people.

The first Christmas was no silent night. This night was filled with tears and struggle, and as Mary fought to give birth to her little boy in a dark cave, she wondered if this would all be worth it. This birth might be the death of Mary, but she believed her child would bring the hope of new life for the world.

To my great disappointment, my faith in God does not solve the problem of suffering or grief. But my faith in God does help me endure pain and loss, knowing that there is a future beyond this life. Like Mary in that cold dark cave, I hold onto the hope that my faith journey will all be worth it. That the love and empathy we see in the life of Jesus, the Christ, is the same love and compassion that holds us on those dark days as we cry and grieve those who have gone before.

This is truly the meaning of Christmas: God, the Great Spirit of light and love, has always been present in our lives, and God will continue to carry us in the arms of eternal love through this life and into the next.