Christmas time in our society seems to bring with it a lot of depression and down feelings. Perhaps it is from an unsuccessful attempt to recreate the innocent joy we all experienced as children on Christmas morning, getting up at the crack of dawn to see the presents Santa Claus brought. I still remember carefully averting my eyes if I needed to go to the bathroom during the night, since there was a clear view of the living from the hallway leading to the bathroom. The last thing I wanted to do was to ruin that pure surprise of seeing the presents. Now as adults, we can no longer experience that pure joy; maturity, society, our own skepticism have tarnished the experience for us.

I think, however, that there is another source for this depression. If you look around, if you listen to the “Christmas Songs” piped over radio and department store loudspeakers, you notice the unreality of the Christmas that is being presented. There should be “peace on earth”, we should all be “holly jolly” and “mistletoing”. War can cease, as long as we want it; people miraculously find their way home for the holidays. Even snowmen manage not to melt for the season.

We as human beings simply cannot exist in such an atmosphere of shallow yet pervasive happiness. Like a plant that has no roots, it quickly withers and dies; nothing is left but emptiness. Even though society has effectively removed Christ from Christmas, and even our own faithful seem to think that parties on Christmas Eve are the way to worship the new-born King, instead of the Divine Liturgy and Holy Communion, yet we still have to schlog through the “Happy Holidays” without any protest. Society does not allow us to doubt and struggle and come to faith, because the mystery has been removed from Christmas. All that remains is vapid happiness.

The true celebration of Christmas, however, leaves a lot of room for what we might call “the darkness”. When we approach Christmas not as “for the children”, or “all about hope and joy”, but see it for the profound mystery that it really is–God emptying himself to take on our human nature–“willing to be gazed on as a young child, the God from before the ages” (Kontakion for the Preparation of the Nativity), we are confronted with something that our meager human minds cannot really comprehend. And so we struggle and wrestle with the mystery; we believe and we doubt, and in the struggle between the two our faith becomes stronger.

The Nativity of our Lord

Look at the icon of the Nativity. The mystery of God becoming man stands at the center; the little child and his mother immediately attract our attention. The two are surrounded by the actors in the story: the angels, the shepherds and the magi. But down in the corner, sometimes the right, sometimes the left, depending on the tradition–that is where we are. There we see the righteous Joseph huddled, deep in thought, struggling with everything he has seen and experienced. Unlike Mary, Joseph has been an outsider to the events (which is why he is placed at the outskirts of the icon), and has to come to some understanding and faith. But before him stands a figure in black–Satan; he engages Joseph in conversation, trying to turn his faith into disbelief. The most beautiful aspect of the icon is the face of the Theotokos–she does not look at her new-born son; nor does she look at the worshipper before the icon. Rather, she looks toward Joseph, praying that his faith will not wane, that he will be victorious in his struggle with doubt.

Mary looking toward Joseph

The hymns from the Royal Hours of Christmas also express this “permission” to struggle with doubt. In a doxastikon from the First Hour we sing:

Joseph spoke to the Virgin in this way: “What is this that I see happening in you, O Mary? I fail to understand and I am amazed! My mind is struck with dismay. Leave my sight therefore, with all speed! What is this which I see in you, O Mary? Instead of honor, you have brought me shame! Instead of gladness, sorrow! Instead of praise, rebuke! No longer can I bear the reproach of men. I was married to you by the priests in the Temple as one blameless before the Lord. And what is this that I now see?”

You can hear the hurt disbelief in the hymn. In a sense, the Church gives us the same permission to struggle and question, to wrestle with this profound mystery, so far beyond our understanding.

A doxastikon from the Ninth Hour approaches the same struggle of doubt from Mary’s perspective:

O Virgin, when Joseph went up to Bethlehem distressed by sorrow, you said to him: “why are you downcast and troubled at seeing me pregnant? Why do you not know the mystery which has come to pass in my? Cast every fear aside and understand this strange marvel: in my womb, God is coming down to earth for the sake of mercy, and He has taken flesh in me! you shall see Him when he is born! Filled with joy, you shall worship Him as your Creator! The angels ceaselessly praise Him in song and they glorify Him with the Father and the Holy Spirit!”

Even on the way to Bethlehem, Joseph is presented as sorrowful and confused. He is immediately obedient to the command of the angel, but he doesn’t really understand. But, the struggle cannot stay at this stage; if it does, it will only degenerate into rejection. There has to be some action; we have to pray, we have to read, we have to trust. Joseph does not remain unbelieving, but comes out of the other end of the struggle victorious, as we sing in the Doxastikon of the Third Hour:

Joseph, how can you bring to Bethlehem, pregnant with child, the Maiden whom you married in the sanctuary? “I have searched the prophets and have been warned by an angel. I am convinced that mary will give birth to God in a way surpassing all understanding. magi shall come from the East to worship Him with precious gifts!

Unlike polyanna society, the Church leaves us room to struggle with the mystery, to engage our doubt, to learn and to come to a strong and lasting faith. There is nothing superficial in this story; the strains of joy and relief that we hear in this last hymn are true and lasting, because a honest doubt and a prayerful inquiry into this great mystery will lead to a fuller participation in the life of God, who willed to become a baby out of love for us.

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