All around us, we are bombarded with the message that Christmas is “the most wonderful time of the year.” And, of course, there is truth in that. For many people, Christmas is a time to celebrate family traditions, to gather with people we love, to feast, to give and receive presents. For many of us, it really is wonderful. And thank God for that.
But Christmas can also be a heavy burden for many of us.
My own burden is light compared to many. But the fact is, I find some of the festivities burdensome. Like many Christian preachers in this season, I encourage people to slow down, to take time to be with God. And yet I feel—rightly or wrongly—that I do not have time to take my own advice. A lot is happening at Church. A lot is happening at home. And sometimes it feels like too much.
And I miss people. When I was a child, we celebrated Christmas Eve with my maternal grandmother. We spent Christmas Day with my father’s parents. They have all died now, and I miss them. I miss the aunts and uncles and cousins that I used to see at Christmas, but rarely see now.
Other people have considerably heavier burdens than that. I think of anyone who struggles with addiction, in this time of eating and drinking and celebrating. Or anyone who struggles with debt, in this time of conspicuous consumption. Or anyone who struggles with grief or loneliness in this time of family gatherings. Or anyone who struggles with depression in this time of mandatory cheer.
Christmas can be a wonderful time. And the very wonderfulness of Christmas can make it hard for many of us to bear.
Ironically, those of us who struggle at Christmas time may be closer to the true meaning of Christmas than those of us who love it all. After all, Christmas is not really about feasting and parties and gifts. Gathering with family and friends is closer to the true meaning of Christmas, but even that can miss the point.
The true meaning of Christmas is the good news of Jesus Christ come among us.
And the good news of Jesus Christ starts with the acknowledgement that all is not right in our world, that suffering and evil are sometimes too much for us, that we are incapable of doing the good that we want or avoiding the sin that we do not want. The true meaning of Christmas begins in an acknowledgement of our brokenness.
And we really are broken. I read in the newspaper last week that “we are now losing roughly 300,000 Americans a year to drugs, alcohol and suicide in ‘deaths of despair.’”
Part of the wisdom of twelve step programs is that recovery begins with the recognition that we have a problem, that our lives are sometimes unmanageable, that we cannot solve all our problems—as individuals or as a society—alone, that we need help. This service is a chance for us each to acknowledge our need.
Christmas comes to us as good news. But it is the good news of a radical solution to a serious problem. God takes flesh and dwells among us because our brokenness is so great that there is no other way forward.
At Christmas, we celebrate the incredible miracle that God loved us so much that he gave his only-begotten Son so that we might not perish, which we otherwise would do, which without Christ we are doing. God gave his Son so that we might have life in Christ’s name, life not otherwise available to us. And so the Christ child was born, Immanuel, God with us.
And God’s love did not end being born. As Paul tells us in our reading from Philippians, Jesus Christ “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”
If the story ended there, it would be a tragedy, and there would be no remedy for our brokenness. Thankfully, the story keeps going.
“God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend . . . and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”
That really is good news of great joy. It is not the superficial merriment of the children’s Christmas specials that we can watch on television or of the parties where we eat and drink more than we should. It is the joy that comes from knowing that God loves us in our brokenness, that God saves us in our brokenness, that God’s love is the final truth of our lives, despite our brokenness.
This service has become one of my favorite parts of the Christmas season. I treasure the opportunity to be honest about our struggles. I treasure the opportunity to come together to acknowledge our pain. I treasure the reminder that God is with us even—no, especially—in our pain.
But most of all, I treasure the reminder that pain does not have the last word. We may be broken. But God became incarnate in Jesus Christ. And Jesus Christ was faithful to the end.
Christ died and rose again, defeating death and opening the door to abundant life, abundant life hereafter, but also abundant life right now. Christ’s victory makes possible true joy, the kind of joy that does not deny pain, but that refuses to be defined or defeated by pain.
This service is ultimately about true freedom, and peace, and joy, the freedom and peace and joy that come after brokenness, the freedom and peace and joy that only God can provide.
But for anyone who has experienced real pain, freedom and peace and joy is a work in progress. We start with our pain and our struggles, and, with God’s help, we gradually heal over time.
In just a moment, I invite those of you who have not already done so to write the names of people you miss, or struggles you have, or pain you feel, on slips of paper to place on the altar. We will place the papers on the altar during our celebration of Holy Communion as a way of offering our pain up to God. At home tomorrow, I will pray over the papers, and then burn them. You are, of course, welcome to take your paper home if you prefer to keep it private.
In the meantime, we will pray together. We will be nourished by holy communion. As another of the twelve steps suggests, we will do what we can to “improve our conscious contact with God as we understand Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.”
And, maybe, we can let go of some of our pain, and experience some of God’s healing power. That is the promise of Christmas, the promise we heard in our gospel reading, the promise of the child Immanuel, which means, God with us. Thanks be to God.
In the name of our Lord, Christ, Immanuel, God with us. Amen.
 Nicholas Kristof, New York Times, December 11, 2022 Sunday Opinion, page 2.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan