One of the most difficult things to navigate Christmas season is expectations. Parents need to find out how to get presents their children would like within their budgets and sensibilities, spouses need to decide when and how to spend time with each side of the family, churches need to work through differing visions of how to celebrate. But the heaviest expectation we may carry is the idea that this season is supposed to be the “most wonderful time of the year.”
While it doesn’t really make sense that a date on the calendar or a few weeks declared the holiday season would magically make things wonderful, for whatever reason we expect or hope for it — which deepens the disappointment when things are not merry and bright. When we dream of warm family dinners and children softly tiptoeing down the stairs Christmas morning but wake to the reality of family strife and hurting relationships. When our hearts ache with deferred hopes or we grieve an empty seat at this year’s dinner table. Or maybe when we are just burnt out from serving, tired from everyday life, and not feeling particularly Christmasy.
For those of us struggling to reconcile our sadnesses with the joyful celebration of Jesus’ birth, I offer two prayers we can pray this advent:
Jesus, this is why you came.
Jesus, come again soon.
Jesus, This Is Why You Came
Advent is the time traditionally used by Christians to prepare for the celebration of Jesus’ birth. The days leading up to Christmas day are filled with remembering the “hopes and fears of all the years” met in Jesus’ birth. The hymns we sing capture the cries of a longing and desperate people hoping in God to fulfill his promises of old: Come, thou long expected Jesus! O come, O come Emmanuel! Ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appears!
The thousands of years of waiting for the promised seed of Abraham and royal descendant of David give context to the climactic joy of Christ’s birth. The disappointment and devastation for the nation as king after king failed to rule justly and love mercy. The animal sacrifices that were an annual reminder of their inability to wash away sin. But now, at last! The coming of the Messiah! The birth of the Savior! The people walking in darkness have seen a great light and after the night, a light has dawned (Isa 9:2). Elderly Anna and Simeon in the temple embodied this long wait. “And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.” (Luke 2:38)
As the anticipation of receiving a desired gift heightens the joy of finally being able to open it, feeling in our hearts the wait in history and the weight of our need for Christ enables us to rejoice in the news of his salvation. And as we meditate on the purpose of his coming, we are reminded that the truth of Jesus’ birth isn’t meant to bring a happy feeling that will temporarily distract us from real life. Rather, our joy is made full in seeing him enter into our darkness, sorrow, and reality.
The world Jesus entered into was the real world– a broken, unwelcoming, dangerous, mourning place. We see this in the birth narrative of Christ. The angel brings Mary great news of a wondrous miracle, but we can imagine the strain on Mary and Joseph as not everyone would have believed their message from the angels. Consider the trek to crowded Bethlehem in the last month of pregnancy and the stress of labor, birth, and recovery. And in the wake of Magi traveling from a distant land, “a voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more” (Matt 2:17).
Yet Jesus didn’t just come in spite of our reality. Our brokenness, sin, and suffering were precisely why he came. And rather than rob us from our ability to rejoice in his birth, our sadness and sorrows give the true context for his coming and deepen our capacity for joyful hope. If all was holly and jolly, peaceful and heavenly, we wouldn’t have needed him to come. He came as our Suffering Savior because we needed, and still need, saving.
Thus the hope of Christ’s birth intersects and breathes life into our brokenness this Christmas in countless ways. In our own struggles against sin and in seeing the less-than-perfect relationships in our own families, we know he entered this world to walk perfectly for us, even unto death, and we have hope for change. In our depression and despair, we know there is no place too dark for him as he willingly steps into our places of need. As we struggle to make sense of horrendous reports of war and tragedy, we know his gospel of peace is meant for the world.
Furthermore, none can say, “God, you don’t understand,” because Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us, our high priest who is able to sympathize with us because he was tried in every way as we are. He came to reconcile us to himself through his death so that he can be for us, and because we know that he is for us, no trial we go through is meaningless, no suffering wasted. In this life we face darkness, but the way we do so is completely different because he has come. Fighting hopelessness, in the light of his birth we can pray, Jesus, this is why you came.
Jesus, Come Again Soon
Not only do we have help now, but Christ has come to make us right with him so that we can eagerly await his second coming with hope. The Christian hope is not merely for an escape from a fallen world after death, but the confident awaiting of the glorious renewal of all creation. And the fact that we are still waiting explains the pangs we feel as we look to Jesus’ second advent, even in this season of celebrating his first.
This Christmas, we live in the tension between Jesus’ comings. Fun family times, laughter, and songs of praise reflect the joy of promises fulfilled – the appearance of the Messiah and the mystery of the gospel made known to the world. Still, on this side of his second coming, Christmases are not yet full of joy and only joy. Sin and death have been dealt a fatal blow but have yet to be swallowed up in victory, and though we do not grieve as those who have no hope, we still grieve.
We grieve over broken friendships, hurting families, and stubborn hearts. We weep over the losses that this season brings to remembrance and this year has held. We ache for healing and for home. And we wait for Christ to come again and make all things right.
When he returns, it will not be as a meek baby in a manger, but as Judge and King. He will silence all wars, punish the wicked, and free us from our own souls’ struggle against sin. All creation will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought under joyful subjugation to his rule. Those who have trusted in him will be resurrected to immortal bodies free from the devastation of aging, cancer, dementia, trauma, mental illness, and malnourishment. In the New Heavens and New Earth, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev 21:4).
During Christmas, we celebrate the beginning of the end of the long wait for re-creation. And as we continue to wait for the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to come again as King, we do so with the confidence of knowing he kept his promise to come first as Suffering Servant. So in the face of our present suffering and in light of his return, we wait and we plead, Jesus, come again soon.
Jesus came. He is coming again.
The first appearance of Jesus as Messiah is likened by Zechariah to a sunrise visiting us from on high, “to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” (Lk 1:79). And one day, when he returns we will dwell with him in the city that “has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Rev 21:23). The birth of Christ was the dawning of the morning sun and we are awaiting the blazing glory of full day.
However you are feeling as you enter advent, know that Christ’s birth is for you. The very things that make it difficult to feel like celebrating are the very reasons why he was born. He has come to free, redeem, comfort, and walk with you. Jesus came. And as the first Christmas has shown us God makes good on his word, know that one day he will come again and on that day your joy will no longer be mixed with sadness. Jesus is coming again.
Rejoice, Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee O Israel.
An earlier version of this post was first published here.