I know that I have a penchant for the bittersweet. Riding in the car tonight with my family, I was playing a CD containing a selection of Christmas songs. On came John Lennon's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" and my son, who hates any sad song, said what kind of Christmas song is that, when Lennon delivers that first line in that weary voice "And so this is Christmas, and what have we done. . .," what kind of song is that anyway? Christmas is supposed to be a happy occasion, right?
Well, it is, and it isn't. And as I tell him, it's not about happiness, anyway, an enjoyable yet ephemeral state, but but about something deeper. That something would be joy, and sorrow is so often intertwines with joy. Jesus comes, and yet looking forward, we see that he has come to die. We experience the absolute joy of freedom from the curse of sin, and yet we know it was bought at a price. Out on a walk in the woods, we know the beauty of creation, and yet we know that death and decay are all around us, that things are winding down. We rejoice in the hope of resurrection and the restoration of all things once and for ever and ever, and yet we know that much sorrow and hardship will occur before that time.
Almost 15 years ago, now, my wife and I were riding around the small town of Lebanon, Oregon, with fog and rain, away from home at Christmas and among strangers, feeling so lonely and dispossessed. There was song on the car CD player, Bob Bennett's "Here on Bright Avenue," with the lines "If those who sow in tears/ will reap in joy somehow/ then surely I am watering/ my fields of future now." In his sadness, Bennett is musing on the promise of Psalm 126:5, that "those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy." And it reminded me then, and now, that hope hides in darkness, that deep and true joy is bound up with sorrow. Because of this, I can't dismiss sad Christmas songs, provided the sadness ultimately points to something deeper, something that God will do.
For some people, Christmas is just blue, and all they can do is preoccupy their minds with the distractions of buying, partying, and fleeting holiday cheer. But for Christians, the deep sadness we know and perhaps feel points beyond itself to something deeper. Joy --- to, and for, the world.