The following was originally posted on 12/22/2008.
Every day I go to work and spend time with suffering people. They come to me for help and for comfort. They open up to me with problems that they would not tell anyone else. They put trust in me – even if I am not able to fix their problems. I serve as a source of healing, but I also am a source of hope.
Christmas is a moving season for many of the same reasons. No, I am not talking about the giving of gifts, or the time spent with family. I am not talking about traditions, church services, or singing carols. I am not even talking about what many see as thereal meaning of Christmas: Mary, Joseph, shepherds, wise men, and baby Jesus. The Christmas story most of us see in pictures or read about in story books is a far cry from the Biblical account. The story we see and hear is sanctified, clean, and safe.
Before I go on, I want to assure my readers that I am in no way trying to persuade them to become Christians. I am a Christian, but whether or not you believe the actual truth of the story, there is much to be learned from it. I find it terribly hard to see the real Christmas story here in a country where the season is filled with so much else – much of it very good. It is far easier to just be happy with family, friends, giving gifts, singing songs, and maybe even going to church, than it is to contemplate the Christmas story. I think the Christians in our culture have gotten way off base on this – much to our shame.
Christmas is not about prosperity and comfort, it is about help to the hopeless. The central doctrine to this season is the incarnation: God becoming man. God didn’t become a man because he thought it would be nice to spend time with us; he did so because we were hopeless. He didn’t come to live in comfort, but to be poor. He didn’t come to help good people, but to rescue the outcast. He didn’t come to hear cheers for saving people, he came to be rejected and so to identify with rejects. He scorned the self-righteous, and embraced the shameful.
What about the Christmas story itself? Mary got pregnant out of wedlock and Joseph chose to bear the social shame. They were in a country that was occupied by a foreign empire, ruled by self-seeking despots and self-righteous religious leaders. Jesus was born in a barn – not the clean manger scene we are used to. The birth was announced to shepherds – people who were scorned by the “good” people of society. The local ruler was so worried the messiah would overthrow him, he sent death squads to murder all children under two in the town where Jesus was born.
Fact or fiction, the scene was not pretty, but instead was filled with pain, despair, and hopelessness. This is hardly what we see on TV. This is hardly what we hear in church. That is the setting describing the first Christmas, not a mall or warm living room with a tree. Christmas is doesn’t hide from pain, it addresses it.
Whether you take it as truth or just as an inspiring story, we should pay far more attention to this meaning. Yes, it is great to give gifts and be with family – I will be doing that as well. But there is no escaping the pervasive pain and suffering in this world. The Christmas message is not about sheltering ourselves from that suffering, but instead going out among the suffering and providing comfort. The lonely woman weeping in the exam room or the drug-seeking addict who is trying to pry a narcotics prescription from me – they are the ones to whom this Christmas message is proclaimed. Whether you do it to imitate God or simply to be a good person, we can perpetuate Christmas by helping instead of hiding.
To those who spend little time around the suffering of others, I urge you to break out of the cozy shell and really celebrate Christmas. Pain and suffering are not far from you; even in our affluent society. What I encounter in my exam room has convinced me that society is obsessed with denying this truth. We have made Christmas into a comfy commercial family time, when the real meaning is something far more profound. If you don’t feel adequate to help the suffering, then let me offer this: medical professionals are no more morally upright than the rest of society, yet we are honored with the task of helping the suffering. We are no better than you are. Really.
So go out there and have a great Christmas.