I love this time of year, and we’re into it full swing. Familiar sights, sounds, feelings and festivals of Christmas are flooding our minds, overwhelming our calendars and draining our bank accounts once again. Along with it, comes our annual opportunity to behold all the hoopla, take another deep breath and consider whether any of it has any real spiritual relevance to us at all. Meanwhile, the entertainment wizards and those with creative talents are working overtime to produce something innovative and compelling out of something old and familiar. Every year brings more demands to find a new slant, develop some fresh approach or invent another fictional subplot to a story that is 2,000 years old.
Members of the commercial world work as hard as their religious counterparts, or even harder, in search of some heretofore undiscovered way to benefit from Christmas — in their case, to make money with it. All that chaos drags the ecclesiastical world into a kind of Christmas identity crisis. Those who once enjoyed sole possession of the story now seem to be asking: How much of the world can we import into our handling of Christmas in order to appear comfortably mainstream without totally abandoning the truth about His birth and what it means? In addition to all that, we hear another side of Christmas crying out, a side that includes realities that we’d much rather leave unacknowledged. Christmas, like the rest of life, includes persistent and disturbing elements whose presence is a call from God to consider a larger picture. Some of those disturbing elements are woven into events that unfolded in the little town of Bethlehem.
Our first contact with the overtly insignificant village of Bethlehem in the biblical record occurs hundreds of years before the Messiah ever graced it with His presence. That introductory account gives Bethlehem a character that all the centuries since then have failed to displace. The Bethlehem episode (Genesis 35:16–20) occurs as we find Jacob, now renamed Israel, along with his entire entourage on the way back home after an extended excursion to Laban’s territory. We might say that he was sent there for some advanced training in human relationships and spiritual accountability. The troop had stopped overnight at a place Jacob afterward called Bethel (house of God). During the night he spent there, God reiterated the covenant He had made with Abraham, promising blessing, multiplication and prosperity. On the heels of his experience with Laban, hearing that reinforcement from God Himself would have most certainly produced an unusual sense of joy for Jacob — not a superficial, giddy, adolescent kind of “happiness” but something much deeper, more lasting and more profound than that, a unique blend of gratitude, relief and praise. Jacob received more than a pardon from God. He had deceived his father, defrauded his brother and denied the trustworthiness of the One he claimed to serve, yet God in His grace not only forgave him but restored him to divine favor and made him the recipient of a glorious promise.
The joy from that time of affirmation and encouragement at Bethel must surely have lingered as they made their way to a little place called Bethlehem, only a short distance down the road. Jacob’s beloved wife, Rachel, was pregnant — yet another cause for joyous anticipation. What they did not anticipate was that this would be the last child she would deliver. The time of that delivery coincided with their arrival in Bethlehem, a little village whose name means “house of bread.” For Jacob and Rachel it could well have been called the “house of pain.” Within its boundaries, life and death unfolded in a single event. God chose to knit pain and sorrow together with promise and hope in Bethlehem. It must have been a heartbreaking scene for those who were there to watch — Rachel’s son struggling to breathe his first breaths as Rachel breathed her last. As her life ebbed away in sacrifice for his, Rachel called her son’s name, Ben-oni — “son of my sorrow.”
With his heart wracked with grief, Jacob looked at the little face that had brought so much sorrow with it, and saw that beyond the pain, there was promise. Jacob saw life, strength and hope and called his name Benjamin — “son of my right hand.” Heartache and joy held hands that day in a nondescript little village. Pain and promise embraced each other. Hundreds of years later, in a common stable in that same little village, perhaps not far from where the son of Rachel’s sorrow became the son of Jacob’s right hand, pain and promise held hands again, and thousands of years later we still feel the power of it.
We seem determined to separate them, this pain and promise coalition, especially when it comes to Christmas. We want the joy to be untainted with sorrow and do all that we can to see that sorrow is discreetly ushered away, out of sight, safely out of touch from our happy scenes. We want only songs of hope and gladness, and only the good feelings that the promise of Christmas brings. We want the suffering to be relegated to a different place and time. Jacob didn’t get to enjoy this pleasant emotional dissection, and neither did God, because reality wouldn’t accommodate it. Reality here never does.
We’re close to Christmas now, surrounded by joy and hope, but in spite of that, I recently attended two funerals. As we celebrate the promise of life and strength and the hope that God delivered through Mary that night, we must not avoid the pain that preceded it. We rejoice in Bethlehem’s gift, but it did not arrive alone. God balanced the joy of new life and the promise of eternal peace with the reality of the pain that comes with it. As Mary and Joseph struggled together in the physical conflict that always attends the entrance of new life, the dark shadow of a cross mingled among the stars over their heads that night, because Bethlehem’s ultimate promise would come at an awful price.
We need not and indeed must not pretend that the pain isn’t real or doesn’t fit. God’s wonderful truth is that after pain has done all it can do and human life has lost all it can lose, the promise, like the One who gave it, lives on.
Ronald L. Gallagher is a Virginia-based speaker and freelance writer whose objective in all his endeavors is to shed light on the relevance of God’s truth in a way that challenges his readers to think and to apply the teachings of Jesus Christ in ways that reveal His heart and that challenge
the cultural norm.
1. Does the importance of Christmas to our economy affect the holiday’s spiritual impact?
2. Do we focus too much on the joy of Bethlehem and not enough on the sorrow?