Families across the Christian world are gathering for Christmas even now, with caravans of cars and planeloads of passengers headed to hearth and home. Christmas comes once again, filled with the joy, expectation, and sentiment of the season. It is a time for children, who fill homes with energy, excitement, and sheer joy. And it is a time for the aged, who cherish Christmas memories drawn from decades of Christmas celebrations. Even in an age of mobility, families do their best to gather as extended clans, drawn by the call of Christmas.
And yet, the sentiment and joy of the season is often accompanied by very different emotions and memories. At some point, every Christian home is invaded by the pressing memory of loved ones who can no longer gather -- of empty chairs and empty arms, and aching hearts. For some, the grief is fresh, suffering the death of one who was so very present at the Christmas gathering last year, but is now among the saints resting in Christ. For others, it is the grief of a loss suffered long ago. We grieve the absence of parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and siblings. Some, with a grief almost too great to bear, suffer the heartbreak that comes with the death of a child.
For all of us, the knowledge of recent events of unspeakable horror and the murder of young children make us think of so many homes with such overwhelming grief.
Is Christmas also for those who grieve? Such a question would perplex those who experienced the events that night in humble Bethelehem and those who followed Christ throughout his earthly ministry. Christmas is especially for those who grieve.
The Apostle Paul, writing to the Galatians, reminds us of the fact that we are born as slaves to sin. "But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons." [Galatians 4:4] Out of darkness, came light. As the prophet Isaiah foretold, "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who walk in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined." [Isaiah 9:2]
This same Christ is the Messiah who, as Isaiah declared, "has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows." [Isaiah 53:4] He fully identifies with and shares all our afflictions, and he came that we might know the only rescue from death, sorrow, grief, and sin.
The baby Jesus was born into a world of grief, suffering, and loss. The meaning of his incarnation was recognized by the aged Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, who prophesied that God had acted to save his people, "because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace." [Luke 1:78-79]
There are so many Christians who, even now, are suffering the grief that feels very much like the shadow of death. How can they celebrate Christmas, and how might we celebrate with them?
In 1918, a special service was written for the choir of King's College at Britain's Cambridge University. The "Service of Nine Lessons and Carols" was first read and sung in the magnificent chapel of King's College in that same year, establishing what is now a venerable Christmas tradition. In the "Bidding Prayer" prepared to call the congregation together for that beautiful service, the great truths of Christmas are declared in unforgettable prose:
Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., serves as president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary -- the flagship school of the Southern Baptist Convention and one of the largest seminaries in the world.