Amidst the cheery carols and tame Nativity scenes, it’s easy to forget how earth-shattering Christmas is. To grasp the deeper joy of this season, we need to remember how Christmas arrived two thousand years ago — amidst doubt and fear, scandal and pain, oppression and sorrow.
When the announcement came to an unmarried young woman that she would bear God’s Son, the timing couldn’t be worse. Her pregnancy was scandalous. And the birth would not go as planned. Forced by government decree to an overcrowded city, away from home and family, she and her fiancé couldn’t even find a proper room. (Didn’t he say he had relatives here?) “Favored one,” the angel had called her, but here she was, relegated to a cattle shed. “Your son will be great,” was the promise — so empty-sounding now as she lay her fragile, fussy baby in a feeding trough. Surely the one who would deliver Israel wasn’t supposed to arrive this way.
The announcement came like a thunderbolt to nearby shepherds. As they faithfully kept the night watch, a terrifying spectacle pierced the darkness: a flash of light, an angel with a strange message, and suddenly a whole army spread across the heavens. As quickly as they had come, they were gone. The awestruck shepherds must have looked at each other in wonder, even confusion. Why had this message been entrusted to them? Uneducated men. Roughnecks. Their faces leathered by years. The scent of the fields always about them. By every social measure, they were nobodies. Who would believe their story? Surely the good news of God had better witnesses than these.
For God-fearing foreigners, the announcement came dimly and mysteriously. Philosophers and proto-scientists, the Magi had searched the stars for centuries, carefully recording their movements, watching for the sign of a Promised One. When it finally appeared, did their long waiting give way to doubt? This was no angelic broadcast from the heavens. It was a cryptic message written in dark, distant skies. And a journey to Israel would be long and dangerous. Would their neighbors scoff? What would their professional colleagues say? Surely they weren’t expected to risk everything — fortunes, reputations, their very lives — for this new king.
For some Bethlehem families, there was no announcement. Only terrified screams, smashed doors, wild-eyed soldiers, the glint of steel — and precious, innocent lives snuffed out. How do you comfort mothers and fathers who have lost children? What is God’s answer to tyranny, to terrorism, to evil? Surely these grieving families felt the suffocating grip of life’s most painful questions. If there is a God, why do the innocent suffer? If Christ indeed has come, then where is justice?
This was the first Christmas. The arrival of Jesus turned the world upside down. Does it still have that effect today?
We journey through the darkness of Advent so we can experience the deeper joy of Christmas. Not fleeting joy. Not a joy that ebbs with season and flows with circumstance. But joy rooted in faith — faith that wrestles with God and refuses to let go. Joy rooted in hope, in holding fast to God’s promises even when — especially when — they seem so distant, so painful, so impossible.
It’s the joy of Mary receiving an impossible message and yet crying out in song, “In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior” (Luke 1:47).
It’s the joy of shepherds, still quaking with fear, who go searching for Jesus and when they find him, can’t help but tell everyone they know (Luke 2:15-20).
It’s the joy of the Magi who, after journeying through long dark nights, find themselves at the doorstep of Jesus suddenly and inexplicably “filled with joy” (Matthew 2:10).
It is joy that rises out of ache and ashes, knowing that God hears the cries of those who suffer, that He will establish justice, that death will not have the last word because God-in-flesh, the babe born that night, came Himself to die and be raised again to conquer death itself (Psalm 10; 1 Corinthians 15:20-26).
This is what it means to celebrate Christmas. Not to escape the darkness of the world, but to look to the Light that came amidst that darkness. “The light shines in the darkness,” John’s Gospel proclaims, “and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light” (John 1:5). As Jesus would later tell his followers, “In the world you have distress. But be encouraged! I have conquered the world” (John 16:33).
The joy of Christmas is the joy of Christ — the realization that Christ has come, that God is with us. So rejoice! Take heart! Be of good cheer! It’s good news, wonderful, joyous news! Our Savior is born today in David’s city. And He has conquered the world.