After we take the ornaments from the tree and carefully pack them away with the other decorations . . . after the joy of gift giving and receiving fades . . . after the glow of celebrating with family and friends . . . after the Christmas carols and holiday specials . . . after the brief interlude of “peace on earth and goodwill to men” . . . life’s great challenges and hard questions remain.
After Christmas, we live in ordinary time.
In ordinary times heartbreak and tragedy—a cruel accident, a terrifying disease or dark pain and incomprehensible suffering—can haunt our days. In those times, we despair for ourselves for those we love and for our own future.
In ordinary times, people are betrayed by those whom they trusted most and depended on for their very lives. Solid ground becomes quicksand, and we struggle to find our footing; we aren’t sure who or what we can count on. We become fearful and suspicious.
In ordinary times, people aren’t treated fairly or justly. We are shamed, humiliated, devalued, and feel the futility of striking back at our tormentors. Pain and frustration sit in our hearts like angry embers waiting to burst into flame.
In ordinary times, people strive to find meaning, joy and purpose and are disappointed again and again. We lose the strength to go on, give up on our dreams, and settle for the life we have. Failure and resignation displace faith and hope.
In ordinary times the future of our dreams can dissolve into murky uncertainty; life will not be what we had hoped or longed for. Our dreams fade, and we feel cheated out of what should have been.
For many, Christmas is just a brief respite from these struggles—not the answer to them.
Sadly, we’ve believed a Christmas-card theology: the gilded manger scenes, elegantly dressed Magi following a bright star, idyllic snowscapes, and nostalgic images of times and places most of us have never experienced. It is not real; it is a myth, cleverly crafted by people with something to sell.
We forget that the true story of Christmas is about real people who faced incredible challenges and hard questions. Their ordinary lives were punctuated by extraordinary events and the miraculous power and presence of God.
Pregnant and unmarried, Mary faced a personal crisis that threatened her life, her security, her hopes, and and her dreams. She asked, “How can this be?” In her greatest challenge, Mary found the God who knew her, loved her, and treasured her.
When they arrived at Herod’s palace, the Magi confronted the failure of their quest and asked, “Where is he?” The child wasn’t there. In their disillusionment, they found the God who led them from their deep despair to their greatest joy.
Afflicted by a lifetime of disappointment, Zechariah wouldn’t trust an angel sent from the presence of God and asked, “How can I be sure?” In that moment Zechariah found the God who is absolutely trustworthy and always, ultimately keeps his word.
After living with the pain and hopelessness of infertility, Elizabeth experienced a miracle pregnancy and asked, “Why am I so blessed?” She found the God who is gracious and loving when life isn’t fair.
Looking at the miracle child in Elizabeth’s arms the crowd wondered about his future and asked, “What will this child be?” That child found his future in his divine destiny as the forerunner to the Messiah, a great prophet, political gadfly, and martyr. Jesus said John was the greatest man who ever lived.
The five questions of Christmas are our questions, too. We want to know why tragedy and struggle come to our lives. We want something solid to trust. We long for justice in our relationships and institutions. We feel the restlessness in our souls and wonder why we can’t find peace and fulfillment. We worry about the future.
The power of courageous questions—even when we question God—is the journey of discovery. Embedded in this great story and these five questions is a sublime and beautiful truth that answers our deepest longings and most troubling questions.
Unwrap the mystery, answer the questions, and discover Jesus Emmanuel—God with us.
Dr. Rob Burkhart is the author of Five Questions of Christmas: Unlocking the Mystery; To Be Like Jesus; and Awakening the Sleeping Giant: Sunday School for a New Generation. A popular speaker at churches, retreats, and educational seminars, he resides in Detroit, Michigan.