This is my husband’s first Christmas without his father. This is my family’s second Christmas divided by unresolved conflict. In my house, at least, some of the “magic” of Christmas has been usurped by another not-so-sparkly reality: The season of celebration often serves to magnify our suffering. Perhaps on this day more than any other, we notice the painful absence of loved ones, long for the way things used to be, or wish for things, often intangible, that we don’t have.
Likewise, the birth of Christ is inseparable from his crucifixion—Jesus’ joyous beginning, the day that we call Christmas, is eternally and inextricably tied to his agonizing ending. Our Savior was born to suffer. In fact, even before he was born, Jesus knew that his Father’s will for him was rejection and death (Luke 24:26)—and although Jesus was God in the flesh, he still experienced the very human struggle with suffering, asking his Father if he might spare him, just hours before his crucifixion.
Coupling the beauty of Christmas with the anguish of the crucifixion is not a message that our culture of holiday excess encourages. But it’s a reminder I think we all need: When we were reborn—transformed into children of God through salvation in Christ Jesus—we also were promised suffering. That’s not the gospel most of us want to preach or personally embrace—it’s much more attractive to promise a life of prosperity. But let me say it again: As followers of Christ, we are called to suffering. (“For God called you to do good, even if it means suffering, just as Christ suffered for you. He is your example, and you must follow in his steps.” – 1 Peter 3:21)
The world is supposed to hate us, because we’re professing a perfect God in an imperfect world—and imperfection cannot stand to be in the presence of perfection, just as darkness cannot coexist with light. As children of the almighty, we are not of this world, so why should it embrace us?
But this isn’t suffering for the sake of suffering. It’s part of the process of sanctification—our purpose here on earth—leading to eventual glorification in heaven.
Here’s the part where some of us particularly struggle: We are called to not only endure our suffering, but to delight in it—to see our suffering as a symbol of our communion with Christ. As the Apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians, “Three different times I begged the Lord to take [the thorn in my side] away. Each time he said, ‘My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.’ So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, he is strong.”