• As pastor I am careful not to assume everyone feels as joyful as I do. And vice versa. The expectation that you have to be happy is not a gracious one.

It’s about jingle bells and big plates full of cookies. It’s about hilariously over-the-top sweaters and houses covered in twinkly lights. It’s about precious family tradition that children never forget and glitter-wrapped presents containing who-knows-what? It’s about delightful TV shows with Grinches and elfish dentists and shooting your eye out. It’s about good cheer and rampant generosity. And did I mention cookies?

Churches are no exception to the festivities of this season. We sing wonderful, triumphant carols and enjoy the music of angels. Sanctuaries are beautifully decorated with greenery, candles and Poinsettias. We host banquets and adopt families and have happy Sunday school parties.

A good friend told me that he always felt that heaven was near at Christmas time. It sure seems that way. It is a time remembered with shimmering theophanic stars, lightning-clad angels and heavenly choirs. At Christmas God seems nearer and the world seems brighter.

Few Baptist churches celebrate Advent as Christmas approaches. For us it’s not just a connection to the deeper traditions of Christendom – it’s acknowledging the yearning and anticipation as the promise of Christmas draws near. Through the Advent season, we realize that we are hoping for something better, we need peace in our lives and we yearn to be loved. On the other hand, I have been a part of churches at Christmas time where I thought, “If you aren’t a happy Christian, you won’t fit in here.”

I know many people who do not feel merry at Christmas. Despite all the joyful music, gift-giving and decorations, Christmas is hard. Many of our own friends and neighbors associate Christmas with loss and pain and broken dreams. As a pastor my approach has never been “Cheer up!” but rather “Emmanuel is here for you – happy or not.”

I know several families who have lost loved ones during the holiday season. Several members of our Grieving Parents Support Group lost children on or near Christmas day. This time of year will never be the same for them. But though they might offer more tears than smiles at Christmas, they should never be left out of the warmth of God’s love and promises.

On Sunday, December 11th at 7:00pm we are offering our fourth annual Candlelight Service for those who have lost a child…of any age. It is an ecumenical service that includes a guest speaker, a concert cellist and the opportunity for these parents to light a candle and say something special in memory of their child. Is it a happy service? No. But I can think of only a few instances where the presence of God is any more palpable.

As the song says, “…and may all your Christmases be bright.” Indeed. Cheery, jingling, light-covered Christmas has burst into the room. But when the light is at its brightest, shadows are the darkest. In a Bethlehem manger a Savior was born. A Savior for all people – especially if you are one of those people in the shadows.