Imagine a young woman, about sixteen years old, living in a conservative religious community, and discovering she’s pregnant. In the time and place where she lives, marriage at a young age is common, but her fiancé knows he’s not the father, because they’ve never had sex, so the engagement will have to be ended. The pregnancy isn’t visible yet, but the reaction of the community is certain, because pre-marital sex and children out of wedlock are outlawed. She will be ostracized, if not banished outright from the town. Her parents are dead, and there are no extended family members nearby. Imagine her fear and anxiety.
It’s hard to have faith when no human help is at hand, when life plans fall apart, when people desert us. Where is God in our darkest hours? How can faith battle despair?
Welcome to the drama of Christmas, without the tinsel and parties and cheer. The young woman only had her faith, and an uncertain road leading to a son born on December 25th.
Imagine the fiancé acting on faith, too. He comes back to his love and marries her, as the pregnancy shows itself to the village. The townspeople assume he’s the father, so he’s disgraced along with his bride. He’d been considered an honorable man, but pregnancy is shameful and unacceptable, and may cost him much-needed work. With only his faith to go on, he perseveres and does his duty, as best he can.
Welcome to the trials of Christmas, the way of love and grace. See how much pain and humiliation goes with every human life, often without cause or warning. See how lonely and embarrassing it feels to have others turn away in judgment.
Imagine the young couple, fighting cold and poverty, traveling many miles to a larger town, as required for the census. With no money and no friends, they are consigned to a barn for their lodging. Animals are the only source of heat in the stable, so the child is born with little protection from the cold. Like so many new beginnings, this one looked bad from the start. Some sheep herders came to marvel, but what could they make of this scene?
Welcome to the very first Christmas, a story of hardship and hope. There are no sugar cookies or crackling fires, no Starbucks or Santa. Through the mystery of suffering and the perseverance of faith, a new life is born. All things are possible with this recipe, guided by the hand of the Master. Can I bring myself to the precipice of belief? Can I accept the danger?
Christmas is a time of renewal and a celebration of grace. It’s a time for forgiveness and hope. We exchange gifts to show gratitude for all we’ve been given, and we give generously to the poor who wait in hope and fear.
I remember being helpless in my own addiction, at the end of the road, unable to see anything but darkness. Suicide seemed like the only option, though unspeakably sad and desperate. Without the help of others, without a loving interruption to my madness, without the love of family and friends and professionals, the disease would’ve swallowed my soul and snuffed out my life.
But help alone couldn’t save me. My recovery wasn’t simply a do-over with clinical guidance. I had to come to a point of deep surrender, and an abject willingness to give up my throne of control. My absurd and deadly pride had to be relinquished, or I would never find a power strong enough to save me.
I remember pacing the hospital ward and seeing a framed poster with the motto: “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” Could it be true? Could I really begin again? It would have to be on a new basis, without the fireball certainty of my old ways. Could I come to believe? Would I have enough to rededicate myself, like the miracle of the Hanukkah lights?
Little by little I made my way down the new road. Or perhaps I was carried by the kindness of strangers, the love of family, and my own willingness to lay down the old life and try a different one. When I was drinking and drugging, I didn’t care what people thought, so why should I care now? I’ll go to the meetings, I’ll pray with the group, I’ll make a decision to turn myself over to the miracle.
Christmas is a celebration of the greatest things coming out of the lowliest, the triumph of humility in the face of suffering, the transformative power of faith. The meaning of Emmanuel is “God among us.” Isn’t that the story of recovery? As we get the daily reprieve from madness, and a rebirth into limitless possibilities, don’t we find it together, in God-among-us, in unexpected joy? Don’t we find it when we share the gift?
Let’s bring the gift with us wherever we go—the gift of being present and ready to help. Let’s help with the dishes, the children, and the lights. Let’s suit up and show up and say Yes to life. Let’s show the world we’ve really come back, and we’ve come back to give back, and come back for good. Merry Christmas.
Jeff Jay’s latest book is Navigating Grace, a solo voyage of survival and redemption.