One of my favorite Christmas hymns is the lesser-known “Once in Royal David’s City.” I especially love the line that says, “He is with us in our sadness and he is with us in our gladness.” I get upset when that line gets left out, as it often is. When I call for it, we’ll sing it. It’ll be in there.
Christmas is a time of sadness and gladness. Of course we have Christmas cheer and holly and candles and special meals. I hope you have great and small traditions. I can remember dressing up on Christmas Eve growing up. For awhile my parents would make a special meal on Christmas Eve before we went to church. We’d eat lobster tails on the good china. Then as we got older, we started going out to our nicest meal of the year at Steak and Ale. We’d open presents and then go visit family again.
There are parties. We have a fantastic one at City Pres – with wine and champagne, great music, a horse-drawn carriage ride and everyone spiffy in dresses and suits and bow ties. God rest ye merry gentlemen indeed.
We also need to remember there is sadness. Perhaps that isn’t very hard to forget. This will be the first Christmas after losing someone you love dearly. Or your first Christmas alone after the divorce or breakup or death or move. There can be tremendous pain in your loss and loneliness, especially highlighted when others are giving and getting so much (or appear to be).
As a campus minister, I knew well the heartache many students felt – because they had to go home. They were returning home back to their controlling mothers, back to their abusive fathers and distant siblings. They had lost their freedom and escape from home, and they didn’t know what to do over Christmas break. It felt like suffering because it was.
On Sunday I taught about the Old Testament prophet Jonah, the one who ran away from God when he was told to preach to the city of Ninevah. He didn’t want them to hear about judgment, because he was afraid they might also hear about grace. He ran onto a boat, and then into a storm and then when he was tossed over, he was gulped up by a great fish (maybe a whale) where he spent three days.
God sent that prophet. God sent that storm. God sent that whale. God sent that miracle. And God sent that grace both to Jonah and to Ninevah. He was there in that sadness.
I think that’s true in life still today, and it’s true in this Advent season. He is Emmanuel, God with us. He’s not only there when we’re smiling and warm and happy. He’s not only there at the Christmas Eve service or lobster tail dinner.
He’s there in the smelly, nasty fish stomach. He’s there when it’s dark and you’re alone and even when it’s your fault. He’s there all the way down when you’re running away from God. He may have even sent that storm to catch you there so you might find grace and mercy in a new way. As Jonah said in that very place, “Salvation belongs to the Lord.” He is with us – all the time in every way.