Christmas can be a poignant and painful time for many people, particularly those who have lost loved ones during the year and who face their first Christmas without them. I’m very aware also that for every miracle of new life this year, there will be those who have miscarried or lost children or who are unable to conceive and who struggle at this time of unalloyed joy. The Bible is realistic about the pain of childlessness. The Nativity story in Luke’s gospel begins with the apparently unconnected story of an elderly couple named Elizabeth and Zechariah who, despite being old and having been married a long time, had no children. ‘Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly’ (Luke 1:6), we are told, but it seemed that this counted for nothing, because they still did not have what they longed for: a child. There are many people who will relate to that feeling and who are struggling with a sense of helplessness and hopelessness at this time, and maybe even feeling bitter and resentful towards God.
God intervened miraculously in this situation (much to their surprise!), and the result was a son, John the Baptist, who would go before Jesus ‘to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’ (Luke 1:17) This reminds us that God is able to step into our ordinary, everyday lives and do amazing things, but it also reminds us that we serve a God who knows all about suffering and pain. The joy and wonder of Christmas can never be divorced from its purpose: God, sending a Saviour who would die on the cross for our sins. This is not a time for superficial, artificial joy. It’s a time when we celebrate the birth of the One who would be ‘a man of suffering and familiar with pain.’ (Is 53:3)