December 21, 2023
The Hope of the Incarnation: Finding Light in the Shadows of Grief
While we celebrate the joy of Christmas, there's also grief that comes with it.
As I sat in a hospital conference room, the doctor looked around at each of my family members and explained how he would do everything in his power to keep my younger sister’s suffering to a minimum as she passed.
Her cancer diagnosis at 19 had come as a shock, but this—this was a different kind of dumbfounded feeling for us. She passed peacefully that cold February evening. It’s situations like this that can make it difficult for so many to celebrate Christmas.
How can we be joyful when we are filled with such grief and pain? How do we sing songs, exchange gifts, laugh, eat and be merry when we simply are not?
As Christians, we see the incarnation of Christ as an exciting time full of possibility and joy; but what if the story of Christmas could teach us something about grief as well? What if this happy story we love to read to our children is showing us something about the nature of human suffering? What if it’s teaching us a foundational truth for facing grief, death and loss head-on? This truth has kept me afloat since that evening this past February: Jesus understands.
Our nativity scenes this Christmas may look picturesque, peaceful and even a bit artsy if you’re like me and my wife (we just can’t ever settle for the basic stuff, ya know?). Yet the reality of the incarnation is much messier.
If you’ve ever experienced childbirth (shoutout to women: you’re rockstars), it’s pretty rough. Even in the modern era with sophisticated delivery rooms, nurses and doctors all around, and epidurals, childbirth is marked by pain and suffering. In addition, let’s think about the reality of the nativity: a teenage bride is pushing out her baby in an unsterilized space without any modern medicine and likely just her husband by her side. I can’t imagine that it was a silent night.
And this brings us to a core truth: even the beginning of Jesus’ story was burdened with hardship.I don’t think this can be overemphasized. In the incarnation, we see that the God of the universe enters into the human story in a painful, messy way. What’s more is that this was His choice. God could have entered into our story in whatever way He deemed good. And yet, He chose to enter in through a painful process, into a life that would be one of abject pain and suffering.
Isaiah 53:3 tells us this about the Suffering Servant: “He was hated and men would have nothing to do with Him, a man of sorrows and suffering, knowing sadness well.” While this passage has many meanings, the Christian tradition sees Christ in this character that the prophet Isaiah describes. What does it mean that Jesus was “a man of sorrows … knowing sadness well?” The ESV translates this phrase as “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” Simply put, this means that Jesus gets it. The beauty of the incarnation is that we do not follow a God who is ambivalent about our pain, grief and suffering; we follow a God who knows it firsthand.
I truly believe that the reason Jesus came as an infant, totally dependent on his parents for the first several years of life, was so that in living the human life, He could relate to those He loves. I’ve found that to be a great hope this Christmas season.
The holidays can be a difficult time for so many people. Maybe it’s a difficult time for you. You may have deep sadness over someone who won’t be around for the festivities this year. Maybe you’re facing the reality that this could be your, or someone you love’s last Christmas. Maybe you suffer from seasonal depression, so while the holidays are seen as “the most wonderful time of the year,” you can’t help but feel that you’re trapped in a pit you can never seem to escape. My prayer for you this Christmas season is that you find hope in the incarnation. I pray that you would find encouragement in the fact that Jesus knows what it means to suffer. He knows what it means to grieve. He knows what it means to lose the ones you love, to weep, to be ridiculed, to be anxious, to be tempted, and to experience death and loss firsthand.
This Christmas, I pray that you can lean on the One who not only knows what it means to experience all of these things, but has overcome each and every one of them. Take his yoke upon you this Christmas; not as an act of work, but as you would lean on the shoulder of a friend.
I want to leave you with Eugene Peterson’s translation of Matthew 11:28: “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me - watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
Take your grief this Christmas and share it with the one who understands grief. Walk in His ways, and learn to truly find rest for the soul. This, friends, is the beauty of the incarnation. It’s the true beauty of Christmas.