It was my first Christmas as lead pastor at Tates Creek Presbyterian Church. I was young, inexperienced, pretending like I knew what I was doing and somehow getting away with it. But there are pastoral moments that can’t be faked, and this was one of them.
A family in our congregation had lost their teenage son. I sat with them for what seemed like an eternity, vainly trying to make sense of a senseless tragedy. When it finally came time to leave, I’ll never forget the terrible irony from the radio when I turned on my car: “It’s the most wonderful time of the year! It’s the hap-happiest season of all!”
There is something strangely unsettling when suffering intrudes upon the holidays. We know we’re supposed to “be of good cheer,” but we just don’t have it in us. And everyone else’s happiness feels patronizing, perhaps even insulting.
But I want to suggest that Christmas, rightly understood, is precisely what the hurting desperately need. Not shallow Hallmark sentimentally, but Christmas in its rawest and most scandalous form—the birth of God.
Christians believe that Christmas is not the birth of the main character of history, but the birth of the actual author of history. God actually writes himself into his own story, and in this way, God can actually relate to his own story.
J.R.R. Tolkien speaks of storytelling as the art of secondary belief. Primary belief is our real experiences of the real story we inhabit. We know things because we experience things. Secondary belief is where storytelling comes in. The measure of a good novel or film is its ability to evoke secondary belief. We get caught up into the story in real experiential ways. We cry with the story’s tragedies, smile with the story’s joys, get chills with the story’s drama—we relate to the story as though we ourselves are in it even though we are not.
When we think of God relating to us, we typically think in terms of secondary belief. He certainly cares for us and is very moved by our story, but only in secondary ways as an outsider looking in. But Christmas is God transitioning from secondary to primary knowledge. He now knows our story because he’s now in our story.
And this familiarity is exactly what the suffering need.
We all know from personal experience that nothing comforts us in our pain more than others who have experienced the same. I call it the power of relatability. This is why support groups, for example, are so therapeutic. But conversely, nothing agitates pain more than those who can’t relate trying to comfort you with trite consolations. Of course we smile and politely thank them, but inside we’re screaming, “You have no idea what it’s like!”
Well, because of Christmas, God himself is now with us in our suffering as one who actually knows exactly what it’s like. I suppose you could say there is pain Jesus never had to experience. He never lost a child, for example. But something we are able to say about Jesus is that there is no degree of suffering he is unfamiliar with, for nobody has or ever will suffer more than Jesus. After all, let us never forget the reason he was born was so that he could die. And not just any death. The cruelest of deaths on a cross bearing the sin, shame, and condemnation we all deserve.
None but Jesus has endured a suffering like Calvary, and in this way, Jesus suffers alone. Nobody can say to Jesus, “I know what it’s like,” but Jesus can say to every single one of us, no matter the degree of pain, “I know what it’s like.” Simply put, Jesus is utterly alone in his suffering, so that nobody will ever have to be alone in theirs.
This is the consolation I’ve learned to share as a pastor. When I’m with the hurting, I don’t pretend to relate, because more often than not, I simply can’t. Instead I hold their hands, look them in the eyes, and offer words only Christmas lets me say: “I can’t imagine what this must be like, but God can.”
Perhaps this is what you need to hear this Christmas season? Perhaps your suffering finds you overwhelmed by cynical sneer not holiday cheer? Perhaps you are just going through the motions of the “hap-happiest season of all” with a hap-hapless indifference to all? I understand. Actually, I probably don’t. But God does. Whatever you may be going through, because of Christmas, God knows exactly what it’s like.