When Christmas isn’t Merry

It took me a few years to realize this: Christmas isn’t always merry.

Not for everyone.

When I faced my third Christmas with chronic illness (and second bed-bound), last December, I realized just how painful holidays can be when you are going through a devastating trial.

This time last year, my illness had worsened. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is known for it’s crashes – post exertional malaise they call it – exacerbated symptoms following exertion that can be anywhere from mild to very severe, and last anywhere from a few days to many months. Well, this was the worst major crash I’d experienced since February that year. I had to cut back on my exertion levels, and attempted to live within an energy envelope of 1 1/2 hours of physical exertion per day to stabilize my symptoms, before I slowly increased those levels. This was hard to say the least. I experienced significant physical weakness and pain every day, as well as a bunch of sensory/neurological symptoms. I felt hopeless and cried a lot. I was afraid of the pain and losses that seemed to be ahead of me. Often I wanted to curl up and go to sleep and not wake up. Many mornings I woke and didn’t want to face another day. I struggled and poured out my broken emotions to God. I couldn’t understand why He continued to answer our prayers for healing with more pain. Christmas didn’t seem at all merry.

Many of us have expectations of what Christmas ‘should’ be like. We say “Merry Christmas” to each other, and we feel the pressure to feel happy and joyful, yet when Christmas comes and our chronic illness hasn’t gone, how many of us put on masks of cheer to hide how broken we actually feel inside. It’s hard when there’s so much excitement going on, but our participation is limited because we have to pace ourselves. It’s hard when we have to spend most of Christmas in bed or on the couch because of debilitating symptoms. It’s hard when we have to reconcile to the reality that there’ll be no deserts, no candy-canes, and no chocolate because of food sensitivities. It’s hard when the battles we fight daily don’t go away just because it’s Christmas.

It’s real, and it’s okay to acknowledge it!

But, what I’m realizing is this: Christmas is for shattered hearts. Christmas is for hurting people. It’s for those who have had their lives shattered by illness, for those who have lost precious relationships, or watched dreams die, and for those who have felt more than their share of the devastation and pain on this broken planet. The brokenness in this world and in our lives shows us how important it was for Jesus to come. For without Jesus, where is hope? What purpose does suffering have? Without Jesus and without Christmas, this life is as good as it gets. But with the hope of Christmas real in our lives, this life is as bad as it gets, for, as my Grandpa says, “The best is yet to come.”

Jesus didn’t come for those who have their act together, or who think they do anyway. He came for the lost, the broken, the hurting, the messed up. He even came for the chronically ill. This is good news for us!! He Himself said that it’s not the whole that need a physician, but the sick, and it’s not the righteous that need a Saviour, but sinners (I think of the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican praying). They’re the ones He saves because they recognize that they need Him. They’re the ones He is close to, because He wants to be. Even though He knows who and what we are, Jesus came to be with us because He loves us.

This Christmas may I encourage you with three things:

First, I encourage you to take your pain and hurt to Jesus. Pour it out to Him. Cry on His shoulder. He is the only One who can truly and fully understand, and He longs to have you close. Jesus is near the brokenhearted. He is in the broken places.

Second, look for signs of His love. In seasons of suffering, His love can often be seen in the small things. Did a friend send you a message to see how you are? Did a loved one send you a card to let you know they are thinking of you? Was there something in nature that has particularly blessed you – a sunset, a little bird, a favourite flower? Did you listen to an encouraging song? Did God bring a special Bible verse to mind? Is Jesus reminding you of His presence in special ways? Let’s remember to take note of the small things He sends our way this Christmas. Let’s watch out for the ways He says “I love you” to us. Let’s wait with expectancy for His hope and joy to burst through. And let’s remember that our heavenly Father loves to give good gifts to His children.

Lastly, to all of us, especially those who aren’t going through something hard, let’s be kind. Please. And sensitive. Especially around those who may be hurting this Christmas. We just don’t know what is truly going on beneath the surface. The people in our lives are fighting battles that we don’t know about. Let’s look for opportunities to love them and give them the gift of our presence and understanding this Christmas.

Let’s all look past the presents and shopping and decorations and our expectations of what Christmas ‘should’ be. Let’s enjoy those things when we can, but let’s also look deeper. Instead of feeling out of place at Christmas because of grief, disappointment, physical pain and exhaustion, inner battles, or whatever it is that comes with chronic illness, let’s remember that Christmas speaks hope into our pain because Jesus came.

“Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word.” 2 Thessalonians 2:16-17

I won’t forget the light that Christ shone into my life on Christmas Eve, as again I read and thought about the Christmas story, and talked to God about it. The dark depression that I’d experienced for two months shifted, and I felt His joy and light. I didn’t do anything except believe- it was His Christmas gift to me.

May Jesus speak hope into your pain this Christmas. May He remind you all of His love in a special way over the next few days, and perhaps instead of merry, may your Christmas be truly blessed. 🙂

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