12/04/2014 01:14 pm ET Updated Feb 03, 2015

When Christmas Is Far from Perfect

It was December 4, 2010, that our dreams of a relaxed, joyous, picture-perfect Christmas seemed to shatter; a glass bulb dropped on a hard floor. My wife Jan, mother of our four children, was diagnosed with a stage 4 squamous cell cancer in her throat. Being a medical family doesn't make it any easier to hear terrifying news. We knew that the coming months would be a battle. Jan put on her normal, positive, hopeful demeanor and powered through. One of our teen sons, with remarkable understatement, said, "It's a shame it had to happen at Christmas, isn't it?" I agreed. But then I thought about it, and realized, "Yes, but isn't it wonderful Christmas came now?"

Four years later, we are thankful that she is thriving and thus far cancer-free. It was a long, hard road. And I give this news to offer hope to those in times of trial. But also with pain for those whose dear ones lost their own battles with sickness. I know that many families will have a Christmas hung with grief.

Obviously, anyone who keeps Christmas wants it to be magical. We don't want reminders of suffering. We want it to be a time of bright parties and sumptuous dinners. We long for healthy, happy families who open lavish gifts under sparkling Christmas trees, while everyone laughs and sings and the dog and cat cuddle under the tree. This is the modern image we hold dear; and on it, we sprinkle the nativity as a kind of afterthought. Like the birth of Jesus was really icing on the already yummy cake of history.

In point of fact, however, history (like our lives) has more often been tasteless at best and bitter at worst. The regular lives of our ancestors down the ages have been punctuated by trouble, bad news and suffering. There are always lovely points, hopeful times, children born, loves found. But pain and loss, misery and fear have always been running in the background of human lives.

Humans, therefore, have always cried out for help, for solace, for relief, for hope. To be sure, it was that way when Jesus was born. Diseases that make us yawn with boredom in our modern teaching centers took children from their parents. Accident victims lost limbs or died; they were not swept off to hospitals in ambulances and given life-saving treatment. Injustice led to the execution or imprisonment of untold powerless, innocent persons. Families were devastated by war, separated by slavery, decimated by epidemic, leveled by famine. Communication with distant loved ones was by letter if at all.

That was the world into which Jesus was born. That was life on earth. Christmas as we celebrate it took quite a while to develop. In fact, the early church wasn't really that interested in Christmas as such. But they were interested in the arrival, and meaning, of Jesus on earth.

They were transformed and uplifted by the way God became man to reach mere humans, teach mere humans, suffer with mere humans, die for mere humans and rise to redeem mere humans; and in the process make them less than mere in their likeness to Him.

Christmas, it seems, came at just the right time. Because it was never meant to be about lovely perfection, which is all we see on advertisements, in movies and television shows. Christmas, in fact, is about life as it is.

Christmas, more to the point Jesus, is about accidents and diseases, broken hearts, lonely families, sin and guilt. He's about tragic headlines, wars and rumors of wars. Christmas comes in the midst of reality, and reality is a mixture of joy and pain; emphasis on the pain. But Jesus, therefore Christmas, is about hope, order, forgiveness, transformation and meaning in all of that wretched temporal Gordian Knot.

Jesus is born into our meager situations, our dirty mangers, our occupied countries, our broken lives so that he can comfort us in person, so that he can hold us and show us the way home to Him.

Yes, it all sounds a little nutty to some. To the skeptic, to the atheist, I say, "I agree. Sometimes I wonder too." But in the midst of bone-crushing hurt and fear, the Christ of Christmas is a comfort many of us desperately cling to; not in ignorance but because we believe He understood; and understands.

So if your Christmas is hard, or bitter; if it lacks ideal proportions and lovely decorations, if it is punctuated by struggle, anxiety, mourning or uncertainty, it is perhaps more true to the season than all the rest. I pray you have no suffering this season; that all the glory of Christmas lights your world. But if that seems unlikely, remember you're right on track.

Because Jesus is light in darkness and hope in hopelessness; not sprinkles on a pastry.