The pictures on the Hallmark cards don’t tell the whole story, do they? The faces stained with tears after stumbling on ornaments in boxes bringing a wave of longing for spouses or children who are not there to share tree trimming this year.  The drives back and forth to hospital bedsides or nursing homes or rehabs to visit family who are not well. The empty apartment, empty bed, empty seat next to them in the pew of singles who feel especially aware of their lack of coupleness during the most wonderful time of the year.

We all have pictures in our mind of how Christmas should be. Visions of warm and cozy moments filled with family and love and joy. Our pictures simply do not include suffering, sorrow, and pain. These feel so out of place, and no cup of cocoa or festive carol can change it.

Sometimes Christmas is hard. Not the “Wow, how will we afford to get the toys? Or geez, we have too many commitments this month!” hard. No, this is the kind of hard that makes you feel like you may not be able to stand the pain that wells up from the deepest places in your heart, threatening to engulf you. The kind of hard that crying and yelling and sleeping does not relieve. This is grief. And grief and Christmas are unlikely companions.

Yet, the very first Christmas, before Santa and Macy’s and Black Friday and Ugly Sweater Parties, had it’s own share of grief. A young woman outcast in her community, through scandal. A man unsure how to care for his new wife and their coming child. Poverty, injustice, pain, and loneliness were hand in hand with the birth of promise, redemption and new life. Jesus came into our pain and our poverty, our need and our mess to live it with us. He did not paint a Norman Rockwell portrait in his arrival. In fact, everything did not get better for those around him right away- actually, it got worse. Children were murdered, his parents were forced to flee in the night, injustice and pain seemed unquenchable. Yet, the promise of his birth was Emmanuel. Christ with us. We were no longer alone and his eventual death and resurrection would secure an eternity of joy and peace that no suffering can ever touch.

Christmas is a promise of Christ with us. We are not alone in our grief. We will not be defeated by sorrow. We will not be swallowed up in suffering. If this December meets you in the midst of darkness, take heart. It was a dark, dark night when Light first arrived, and real hope, in Christ can never be taken from you. Hold on to the promise of Emmanuel.