“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God with us’).”Matthew 1:23
“But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.”Isaiah 53:5
This December reminds me of the holiday season I experienced during my freshman year of college. I only lived an hour from home, but that was an hour too long for me. I deeply missed the presence of loved ones and the grounding familiarity of home. As my family maintained the comfortable, communal rhythm of daily life, I was dodging beer bottles thrown from the top floor of my dorm building and avoiding all my floormates on “Wasted Wednesdays”, during which the participants would drink as much cheap vodka as possible in as little time as possible and then try to walk down the hall. A college rite of passage to some, but to me, it was dangerous and disturbing. Someone had told me that college was supposed to be the best four years of my life, but Berkeley, for all its merits, couldn’t hold a candle to my years spent living in a family unit. My introverted self struggled to get out there to find like-minded people, and I didn’t know how to engage the people around me without feeling fearful and exhausted.
When December arrived, I was so desperate to feel happy that I ran to the closest drugstore and spent too much money on a sparkly, two-dimensional Christmas tree to hang on the concrete wall of my dorm room. I thought it would cheer me up, or at least lift some of the heaviness of the loneliness I felt. All it did was remind me that I was daily missing the real tree cut fresh from the Santa Cruz foothills and presiding in all its splendor over my parents’ living room. I kept that sparkly tree for nine years and never liked it. It was a relief to give it away the year Austin and I got engaged.
I am so blessed to be able to spend this Christmas with my young family. But I keep thinking about the people who have to spend it alone, and it makes the seasonal traditions feel like that overpriced glitter tree- marketed to me as something that would bring me joy, but actually just reminding me of what I had lost. I remember loneliness. And it breaks me to think how LONELY this year is for so many.
Which is why it’s such a relief that there is another way to celebrate this year, a way that lifts the burden from heavy hearts and brings companionship to lonely souls. It’s simple and hard: as simple as remembering that Christmas is about the Savior born to be with us, and as hard as having to sit with the fact that in order to truly be with us, he had to die the cruelest death anyone ever died. The purpose of Christmas is not a birth. It’s a death.
This sounds crazy to the outside world. One time I had Bebo Norman’s song “Born to Die” playing in the background while studying. I thought nothing of it, but someone who had never heard it asked in horror, “Why the heck is he singing ‘born to die’? Isn’t this supposed to be a Christmas song?” Well, yes. If we relegate Christmas to a simple birthday party, even a divine one, we miss the bigger picture. Jesus wasn’t satisfied simply to hang out with us for 33 years and teach us how to live a good life. If he had been, he would have been the biggest hypocrite that ever lived. He reserved his sharpest rebukes for the religious leaders because, in his words, “they tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them” (Matthew 23:4). No, his birth was not only about his life. It marked the beginning of his death, of his laying himself down to satisfy both the justice of a God who is righteously angered by our sin and the mercy of a God who refuses to rest until we are saved from that sin.
That part of the story is not appropriate for our plastic light-up lawn figurines, but it’s the core of Christmas: Jesus was born to be crushed under the weight of every secret shame we have inflicted on ourselves and every brazen rebellion we have ever thrown in God’s face (Isaiah 53:5). Born to sweat blood in anticipation of that task (Luke 22:44). Born to know the most heart-wrenching loneliness during unspeakable physical agony (Matthew 27:46). Born to stare that kind of death in the face and walk away three days later, victorious. Leading us in his wake.
This is the answer to our loneliness: “they will call him Immanuel (which means God with us)” (Matthew 1:23). For all who are lonely this Christmas, there is a Friend like no other (John 14:26, 15:15). He prizes us so highly that he spent his life and death paving the way to be with us, now and always. We celebrate Christmas because the tiny cry from the manger foreshadowed the death-cry from the cross, so powerful it tore the veil that self-restricted God’s Presence to the inner part of the temple (Matthew 27:51), and suddenly God was no longer just among us, but intimately united with us. And because Jesus rose again three days later, our union with him is eternal. “Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow,” the triumphant old hymn goes. Just as God planned all along.
Step aside, drugstore glitter tree. There’s another tree to gaze upon this season, and it’s shaped like a cross with open arms.