Grief is particularly difficult at Christmas, as the best memories can be the hardest ones. But the hope of Christmas is broad enough for joy and sorrow.
The strangeness and scandal of the season get easily lost in its familiar rituals. In Christian belief, the boundless, timeless God became, in J.B. Phillips' phrase, one of those "crawling creatures of that floating ball." From the beginning, many of the reasonable and pious found the whole idea to be nonsensical or blasphemous. But it is the central tenet of an enduring faith. Instead of setting out a philosophy to interpret the human drama, God joined it. He became "God with us" -- a God with a face. In the process, he both shared and dignified ordinary human life, with all its delight, boredom and suffering. The Christmas story revels in this blasphemous elevation of the ordinary -- a birth in second-rate accommodations under a cloud of illegitimacy.
And the story is also shadowed by sorrow. In one of the odder moments of the narrative, a random stranger at the Jerusalem Temple predicts a mother's grief. "A sword," Simeon tells Mary, "shall pierce through your own soul also." As it did. As it has for many mothers and fathers who have followed.
The point of Christmas is not a sentimental optimism about the human condition or even a teaching about the will of God. It is an assertion that God came to our rescue, and holds our hand, and becomes, at the worst moments, our brokenhearted brother. It is preposterous, unless it is true. And then it would be everything.
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