I love preparing for the Advent season each year. When I talk with friends about our traditions, I’m sure they visualize my family gathered serenely around a wreath of candles, quietly absorbing the weight of the incarnation with our children, sipping hot cider and talking about how much we love this time of year.
That’s not the image I mean to project, though. It’s not that Advent is never that way in my household. It’s that when I remember the Advent celebrations of my family’s past, I remember a lot of tears.
Advent is a look back and a look forward—an exercise of remembering Jesus’ first coming and setting our hearts on His next one. We are so shackled to the daily minutia of soccer practice, homework, laundry, work deadlines, bills, meal prep, and general busyness that it becomes nearly necessary to set aside twenty-five days in December to take a long pause and remember who we belong to and why we belong to Him.
It’s a time to re-calibrate our desires, to see more clearly what our life should be about, to remember that our redemption was made possible through the death and resurrection of the baby in the manger. Advent is a long sabbath for the weary, hurried, unfocused soul.
But Advent is for broken hearts, too.
There’s a reason people talk about the holidays being hard. Suffering doesn’t seem to follow the calendar or save itself for a less busy or less emotionally charged time of the year. Trials aren’t respecters of our schedules, and at some point, we’ll all likely find ourselves walking through the holiday season in a fog of grief or brokenness.
Four years ago, my family lived through just such a grievous Christmas. My grandmother was dying of Alzheimer’s and I had recently been diagnosed with a chronic pain disease. Alongside all these health struggles, we were also in the midst of an adoption train wreck that kept us guessing each day whether or not we would be able to keep our new son.
I remember feeling perpetually afraid as we approached December. I was fearful that this first Christmas with our youngest child would also be our last one with him. Our extended family didn’t know what to do that Christmas—buy him presents? Include him in the family photos? Pretend like he’s a visitor in case it doesn’t work out? When my grandmother’s prognosis and my precarious health were added to the equation, I wondered if it would have been safer to just skip the holidays all together.
But then December 1st rolled around, and we fell into the rhythm of Advent as we always have. We lit the first candle, read our first Scripture passage, prayed, sang, and remembered the point of Jesus’ coming in the first place. We did it again the next night, and again the night after that.
And something strange happened. As I sat on the couch with my husband and kids, the practice of remembering had an odd, healing effect on my very present grief. Meditating on the purpose of Jesus’ coming shifted things in my heart, rearranging the unsettling hierarchy of grief and fear. The story about the baby in the manger isn’t just an old tale we share with our kids to remind them that Christmas is coming. The story is real and true and had implications for even our painful, unstable family circumstances.
The baby in the manger was the Son of God, and His coming was something unimaginable. God had promised to always be with His people, and He kept that promise throughout the Old Testament by dwelling in their midst in the tabernacle and the temple (see Ex. 29:45-46). But here in the birth of Christ, God didn’t just dwell with His people.
He became one of them.
Jesus, fully God and fully man, would walk the earth in human skin just like ours. He would know pain and grief and temptation and betrayal. He would touch broken people and confront prideful hearts. He would heal physical diseases while offering permanent relief to man’s biggest problem: sin.
He would do it up close. He was Immanuel, which means “God with us.” Matthew recounts the promise: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means God with us)” (Matt. 1:22-23).
Retelling this old story – rehearsing it every December night — reminded me of Jesus’ purpose in coming as a baby in Bethlehem. It was to be with His people and to save them from their sins (Matt. 1:21-23). He accomplished this by living a perfect life, dying on the cross in our place, and rising from the dead three days later. He was victorious over sin, Satan, and death
And that means that He has the last word over the things we’re afraid of, the things that grieve us, the things we cannot reconcile. We might be afraid, but He is our peace. He is strong, constant, and near. Remembering these things about Him brought me an unearthly calm during a tumultuous, fearful holiday season.
Jesus didn’t abandon us after the cross and the empty tomb. He promised He would be with us always, and He sent the Holy Spirit to continue keeping that promise of “God with us.” The truth of the matter is that believers are never without the presence of God. He lives in us (Acts 2:33). He is always God with us.
He wasn’t just Immanuel in Bethlehem. He wasn’t just Immanuel walking by the Sea of Galilee. He wasn’t just Immanuel to the hungry crowds or the twelve disciples. He was Immanuel then, and He is Immanuel still. He is with us.
He is Immanuel when you are afraid of what next year holds. He is Immanuel when the diagnosis is dire. He is Immanuel when you have to celebrate Christmas all alone. He is Immanuel when your spouse has left you. He is Immanuel when you’ve lost a beloved family member. He is Immanuel when the foster child can’t stay, when the budget is too tight, when the job might come to end, when the cancer has come back.
Nothing can separate you from His love, Christian. And nothing will keep Him from being with you. He is Immanuel—God with us—today, right now, this very day, this brokenhearted Christmas season.
When you don’t want to light the candle, read the Scripture passage, or sing the song about Jesus this Christmas, do it anyway, friend. Advent is for broken hearts. Advent reminds us that God is with us. He came to be with us, He sent His Spirit to be with us, and He is with us still. He will not forsake you. Instead, He is near to the brokenhearted (see Ps. 34:18). Very, very near. He is Immanuel.