My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? —Psalm 22:1 NIV
It started with a trip to the DMV to replace my stolen driver’s license.
Despite having to spend the first official day of my vacation doing something that ranked only slightly higher than a root canal (which included lining up outside in the freezing rain for twenty minutes), I was determined to display the Christmas spirit.
The woman at the desk was wearing ornament earrings, so my question seemed safe.
“Are you all ready for Christmas?”
“Ready for it to be over,” she replied in a huff.
Not sure how to respond, I nodded and waited for more.
“My in-laws are staying with us, and I haven’t even started shopping yet. I only have two days off so who knows when I’ll get everything done.” I nodded sympathetically and wished her well as I walked away.
Later, at the post office, it was more of the same.
“Hey, Karen,” I exclaimed when I finally made it up to the window. “Are you excited for Christmas?”
Her look said it all.
“Uh-oh,” I said. “Tell me about it.”
“My ex is making my life miserable, my oldest son isn’t coming home, and my boyfriend just lost his job. Then I get to come to work and deal with all these lovely folks,” she said, waving at the sizable line behind me.
Karen and I have gotten to know each other fairly well over the years. I listened, offered a few words of hope, and promised to pray for her as I collected my things.
What is it about this season, “the most wonderful time of the year,” according to the song, that seems to highlight human suffering? For years Christians have bemoaned the commercialization of one of our two most sacred holidays, pushing back against the narrative that Christmas can only be merry when you wake up to a Lexus wrapped in a bow. This year, however, I noticed something different, something that has seeped into our mindset in a way that the advertisers never could.
I call it the Hallmark Effect based on a conversation I had with a KCBI listener. She couldn’t get into the holiday spirit, so her answer was to park on the couch and binge-watch the Hallmark channel Christmas movies.
This is not a blog designed to deter you from Lifetime, ABC Family, Hallmark, or any other network that has mastered the art of the holiday flick. It takes all of seven seconds to hook me in and then I’m right there on the couch with you, Kleenex box on one side and a plate of cookies on the other. Rather, this is my attempt to put a warning label on your TV that pops up before you indulge.
The Hallmark Effect is far more subtle than the blatant displays of trinkets and toys under bright red “SALE!” signs. Rather than making Christmas about a jolly man with a sack of goodies, it sells a softer story of miracles, precious moments, and happy endings; of family members making it home just in the nick of the time to a table set for a feast, or a child expertly maneuvering things so that estranged parents get back together.
It’s about the miracle, the moment, the hope in the midst of hopelessness, and it’s bound to leave us depressed.
Why? Because it’s selling us a different kind of false narrative that is far more difficult to detect, and we are falling for it, hook, line, and sinker.
We have made Christmas about family, meals, and an advent candle on the side. We’re still going to church and reading our devotionals, but the focus is not on Christ. Therefore, we forget He came to save us from sin and instead believe that the miracle, the moment, and the hope are found when we’re delivered from our suffering.
Christ did not condescend to earth to deliver us from suffering. Indeed, He promised that we would know suffering firsthand.
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” —John 16:33
The world Jesus entered was fraught with oppression and injustice. In 37 B.C., just thirty-or-so years before He was born, the Romans captured Jerusalem. Joseph, Jesus’ adoptive father, would’ve known the story well.
It took the Romans forty days to break through Jerusalem’s outer walls, then fifteen more to capture the temple compound where Antigonus had taken refuge. Both Roman soldiers and Herod’s Jewish troops, furious that capturing the city had taken so long, went on a rampage, slaughtering men and women, even infants and the elderly. Antigonus surrendered to stop the killing, yet still, the Roman general was merciless.[i]
By the time Joseph and Mary journeyed to Bethlehem, the Jews were burdened under the full weight of the Roman dictatorship, whose way had been paved by the Greeks.
During the Hellenistic era, the Greeks used a system of “tax farming,” selling collection opportunities to the highest bidder. Herod the Great would utilize this arrangement as well. He placed levies on almost everything, taxing people on their land and crops, even their animals. They had to pay poll taxes, travel taxes, and sales tax on everything from food to slaves.
The tax burden was crushing under the Romans, who refined the method by requiring people to register in the town of their birth and by hiring chief collectors, who determined tax quotas and sold franchises to the highest bidder. [ii]
The newly married couple, days away from giving birth, had no choice but to return to Joseph’s hometown to register with the Roman government. The Jews, just like us today, were waiting on a Messiah to ride in on a white horse, overthrow the rulers, and reestablish Israel so they could live happily ever after.
That was the Hallmark version, and it was as far from reality then as the holiday movies are today.
Christ entered the world on the wings of a miracle—the virgin birth. He healed lepers, ate with sinners, and opened the eyes of the blind, but spoke harsh words against those who sought Him for His signs: “As the crowds increased, Jesus said, ‘This is a wicked generation. It asks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation’ (Lk. 11:29-30).”
Christmas is about Immanuel—God With Us. It’s about a Heavenly Father who “so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life (Jn. 3:16).” It’s about the God who chose to walk where we walk, talk like we talk, and take names to the cross.
When we make Christmas about a happy ending, we cheapen Christ’s sacrifice and miss the point. Jesus didn’t come to deliver us from suffering but from death. Can we be honest with each other for a moment? The best day you’ve ever had still included moments of frustration, but your worst days are always saturated with grace and drenched with hope. The world can offer fleeting moments of happiness, but not a smidge more.
But because of Christ we can celebrate in the midst of suffering and rejoice in the depths of grief. When the star shone over the manger a light pierced the darkness that cannot be snuffed out or contained. It’s a light that shines eternal and drives out our fears. Hallelujah! Death has lost its sting, and the grave has lost its bite. Evil, while present, will not have the last say for the cross has knocked out its teeth.
So grab your cookies and your Kleenex and watch as many movies as you want. Only remember that the miracle—eternal life—is already yours. While you may suffer now, it is a passing moment in the face of heaven, and the hope that you have in Christ will never be taken away. Even if your table is empty. Even if the family is fighting. Even when the divorce is final.
Your “Happily Ever After” won’t come in this life anyway, so let’s set our eyes on that which is to come.
And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer, and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him, he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. —Hebrews 12:1b-3
God bless you, my friend, and Merry Christmas.
[i] William H. Marty, The World of Jesus (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2013), 116.
[ii] Ibid., 117.