Four years ago our Christmas was stripped of all the extras. We were in a large desert city in northern China, far away from Western influences, almost in Mongolia. There were no Christmas trees, no holiday lights, no church service with kids dressed like wise men and sheep. We ate at a restaurant on Christmas Eve that had a techno version of “Last Christmas I Gave You My Heart” playing on a loop. We still taunt each other with that song. Otherwise there was nothing.
We arrived on Dec. 23rd, got off a plane and drove to a hotel. As we walked into the lobby with our suitcases, a little boy was waiting for us. He cried, but let me hold him. He was sweet, probably not sure what to do with us, the funny-looking people whose English sounded like gibberish to him. He quickly made friends with Jana and Michael, and they played games with the telephone in the hotel room. He was wearing a hat and race car tennis shoes, and he wouldn’t let us take them off. So of course, he slept in his shoes. The next day, Christmas Eve, I held him on my lap in the back seat of a taxi, and drove to some government offices. After a multitude of fingerprints and signatures on papers we couldn’t even read, he was ours. Our son. Didi, little brother. We had been praying for that moment so hard. He was the gift we had been waiting for. Our perfect Christmas gift in a city that didn’t know about Christmas.
I thought a lot about Christmas that year, looking out the hotel window onto that sprawling city. Three million people, living their lives, with no thought about Jesus. It occurred to me that even though it didn’t “feel” like Christmas, that year might have been closer to the heart of Christmas that my normal experience of holiday joy. That huge city, all those people, needing God, and they didn’t even know it. That’s why He came, right? Not so we could bake cookies and give gifts, not even so we could have family time, light candles and sing about angels. But because the world is lost and dark and we need Him.
As we got to know that little boy in those first few days, I reflected on the hardships he had already faced. The first day of his life, wrapped in a blanket on the steps of an orphanage, his mother weeping with a broken heart as she walked away in the darkness. The months in a crib among many cribs, without a mother or father. Moving to a foster home. More disruption as he left the foster family he had grown to love, and met us. He was too little to understand the changes or why they were happening. We named him Samuel, which means “God has heard.” We wanted him to know that in spite of the tragedies he had been through, God was there. God heard his cries when he was hungry, or scared, or lonely, even when no one else heard. God loved him, and had never left him. God was with him.
Four years later it’s Christmas again, but Samuel is gone. I can’t wrap my mind around it, but it’s crushing me regardless. And I don’t want to celebrate Christmas. I’m left standing, broken and empty-handed, while everyone else’s life rushes past me in a blur. The lights and laughing and gift-buying of the season are hollow and empty. “Merry Christmas,” everyone says. It isn’t merry. I just want my baby back with me. But as much as I hate it, I wonder if we might be close to the heart of Christmas again this year. Samuel gets to spend Christmas IN the arms of Jesus. That should make me happy, but it doesn’t, not really. I confess my short-sightedness and lack of faith, and I’d rather have Samuel in MY arms.
But isn’t this why Jesus came? Because our world is broken, and we desperately need a Savior. He came for cities that have never heard, for orphans crying alone. He came for broken mothers, for mourning families, for uncertain friends. We sin, we hurt others, we get hurt, we grieve, we are confused. We try to make our own way, and we try to hold on to the earthly things we treasure, but it’s not enough. God tells me that what I should treasure most is Him, and that somehow at the end of it all, He will be enough. When pain seems out of place at Christmas, maybe it’s because we’ve distorted the day. We don’t rejoice at Christmas because everything is happy. The joy of Christmas is because we find God, right in the middle of us, in the middle of our pain and sin. He came to be a light in the darkness, and to bring victory over death. Heaven is possible because Jesus came to us. Hope and peace are possible because He came to us.
“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” Immanuel, God with us. Christmas is God with us.