Celebrating Christmas in the Underworld

Snowmen hung like overweight acrobats from the light poles lining Main Street as the hearse crunched over the snowy pavement. Jingle bells, sirens yell, tears cascade like rain. All they wanted for Christmas was him back. Before he left his friend’s house. Before the curve of the bridge. Before he fell asleep at the wheel.

That year, their tree would be tinseled with the shards of a family’s heart. That year, they’d celebrate Christmas in the underworld.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. But it’s not. Not for some. Not for many.

Not for the divorced man who washes down antidepressants with eggnog as he thinks of the children who are with the ex and her new boyfriend this year. Not for the single mom, working two jobs, who had to choose between paying the electric bill and buying her kindergartner what his heart was set on. Not for the cancer patient who can’t force down even half the plate of dry ham and runny cranberry sauce from the hospital kitchen.

They celebrate Christmas in the underworld, in the underjoy, on the dark underside of a life that so often feels ugly and dirty and mean.

In other words, they celebrate a Christmas like Mary and Joseph did.

In the underworld of a blackened barn a writhing teenage girl pushed God out of her womb onto straw where donkeys had lifted their tails and shat. Far from home because a power-hungry politician forced them into this cold and mad journey.

Welcome to the world you made, God.
And that we unmade.

Do you hear what I hear? The rip of cloths to wrap around your body still caked with a mother’s blood. The footfalls of demons skulking in the darkness outside, biding their time for the attacks to come.

Into what kind of world were you born, God?
A world where… 
Bruised children whimpered behind bedroom doors
Broken men groaned over fresh graveyard dirt
Babies wailed as they clawed at milkless breasts
Wounded soldiers howled into the blackness
Women of the night brazenly hawked their wares
Fists smashed into broken faces in drunken brawls
Wizened men wheezed final unintelligible words
And the blackened teeth of the homeless chattered.

Merry Christmas, Jesus. Welcome to the world of the underworld.
Are you still glad you came?
That you left your Father’s side?
That you dove into a creation gone so wrong?

I tell you the truth, hard as it is to believe: yes, he’s glad. He’s glad to come into a world that needs him. To us who need him. To us who whisper Joy to the World through tears. To us who cling like castaways to any scrap of hope still floating in our shipwrecked lives.

We say, “I can’t go on.”
Jesus says, “I will hold you so you can.”
We say, “But I don’t think I can even believe that.”
Jesus says, “Even when you are faithless, I will be faithful to you.”
We say, “But I feel so alone.”
Jesus says, “I am Emmanuel, God-with-you, God-never-leaving-your-side.”
We say, “But what’s the point? My life is over.”
Jesus says, “I am your life. And I am never over.”
We say, “But look at what I’ve done. I’m dirty.”
Jesus says, “Look at what I’ve done for you. I have taken your dirt and smeared it all over me. You are clean, I am filthy. See me dirty on the cross. See you clean beneath it.”
We say, “Nobody wants me.”
Jesus says, “I want you—desperately, lovingly, crazily, I want you.”

He does. No one twisted Jesus’s arm to make him enter Mary’s womb. No one tricked him into being born into a world strung out on the meth of sin. He came in with his eyes wide open. And his heart too. A wide-open heart big enough to hold the whole world.

He’s born in the world of the underworld to bring all of us into the kingdom of his Father. To show us that there’s always hope because there’s always him. To lead us out of the shadow of death and into the halls of his church, alive with light.

That’s the God of Christmas. The God not afraid to get dirty to make us clean. The God who made himself ugly to remake us as beautiful. The God laid in a manger, lifted up on a cross, and exploding from the tomb where they buried him to usher in a kingdom where there truly is joy to the world, where angels sing Gloria, and where we who have tasted the blackness of the underworld might drink the light of heaven in the presence of a God like that.

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My new book, Your God Is Too Glorious: Finding God in the Most Unexpected Placeswill be released in January. You can pre-order copies now from Christian Book DistributorsAmazon, or Barnes and Noble.