The Christmas season is upon us, often meaning our joys and sorrows are increasingly magnified. If our lives are brimming with joy and loved ones near, well, the strings of bulb lights and wintery wreaths energize that happiness like cinnamon to steaming cider. But if we’re treading a path of loss or suffering or unmet longings, our pain is only increased by the continual reminder of what could be, or should be—A soul mate to call your own, a home of bustling children and grandchildren, vibrant health, full stockings and bank accounts, and chestnuts roasting on an open fire.

Longing for the Christmas Ideal

The Christmas ideal that accompanies our passage through December is a companion that reflects what we deeply hope to be our reality while exposing the parts of our lives that fall quite shy of the image it upholds. As a single woman with no children, Christmastime is both exceptionally sweet and a reminder of what is not. I will not be arm in arm with a husband through the malls, nor will I be buying my own children matching pajamas. I’ll be torn between deeply enjoying my parents and family in Virginia on Christmas day while simultaneously missing my community in Tennessee, the friends who make-up my daily life.

To be absolutely certain these are trifle voids compared to some of the unspeakable upheaval and tragedies some of the people I know are currently in the throes of. Regardless of how we’re walking through this Christmas season, every point at which life does not measure up to loved ones around crackling fires and picturesque table settings will be exposed.

So what do we do with a Christmas ideal that shows us what we all long to be true but is perpetually out of reach?

We do what Elizabeth did when Mary came to visit. We rejoice in our Savior instead of dwelling on who’s got it better or where our lives aren’t living up to our Christmas expectations.

A Tale of Two Relatives

Consider Elizabeth’s story leading up to the encounter with Mary who came to visit her newly pregnant with Jesus. Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah had pleaded with the Lord for children but with nothing but seeming silence in return. For a woman of Jewish culture to be barren was the ultimate social shame, a devastating loss of legacy and meaning in one’s society. After years of what Elizabeth would refer to as her “disgrace among the people”, the angel Gabriel visited her husband in the temple proclaiming that Elizabeth would soon become pregnant with a son. And while any son would have done just perfectly for Elizabeth, this child would be the forerunner of the Messiah. After all her suffering, Elizabeth would bring into the world one of the most important figures in Christendom.

Mere months before the very first Christmas, we find Elizabeth’s life shaping up more divinely than she could have ever imagined. Her disgrace has been removed, her womb is inhabited with child, her status in society has been exalted. Soon she will place in her husband’s arms what she’d always longed to give him but never could. Elizabeth, well along in years and having been faithful to the Lord through decades of unanswered prayer has finally reached her moment. The shaft of God’s favor is finally beaming down upon this most faithful and deserving woman.

Nothing like six short months for someone to threaten a Christmas ideal; Enter, teenage relative Mary.

In those days Mary set out and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judah where she entered Zechariah’s house and greeted Elizabeth. (Luke 1:39)

Essentially the only woman in all of space, time and history who could have possibly outdone Elizabeth, shown her up, beat her out, crashed her party, would have been Mary the mother of Jesus (of course this was not Mary’s heart or intent). At the peak of Elizabeth’s glory a much younger and arguably less deserving woman steps through the front door bearing a child greater than her own. And if we’re looking at all of this strictly from a human perspective, Elizabeth’s Christmas ideal fractures before Christmas has even come.

But Elizabeth was not caught up in comparisons or jealousy. Instead, Elizabeth stuns with her gracious response.

How could this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? (Luke 1:43.)

Her words reveal a secret we desperately need at this time of year: Elizabeth’s hope was not in an ideal but in a person, the person of Jesus Christ. When the blessed mother of her Lord entered her home, the farthest thoughts from Elizabeth’s mind were the ways in which her esteem, happiness or place in society would be threatened. All that mattered to her was the Lord, and because this was foremost true she could delight in Mary’s blessing as well.

Resist the Christmas Comparison Game

As I venture into this Christmas season I will be deeply disappointed if I compare myself to those whose lives are living up to the Christmas ideal in ways I wish were true of my own. I will ache unnecessarily if I set my hopes on Christmas-y images of magical settings that inspire a longing they are powerless to fulfill. If my focus is solely on the movies and malls and mulling spices, I will miss out on intimacy with my Savior, the only one able to commune with me in the deepest places of my heart. I will look to Him to do what only He can do in me, what no idealistic fantasy can.

As unmet longings and desires are awakened this season, I will spend quiet hours in God’s Word being reminded of the ways that the Desire of Nations meets our longings. When I feel alone, I will meditate on Immanuel, God with us. Like Elizabeth, I want to look beyond my own wants while delighting in and helping others in the context of Christ and community—that the mother of my Lord, should come unto me?

While I intend to hold nieces and nephews on the couch and watch Frosty and Rudolph, decorate a bang-up tree, make gingerbread houses, stroll leisurely through shops, sing with Amy Grant in the kitchen, splurge on Christmas-y cups of coffee, read by the fire, dine with friends at special gatherings, and perhaps let myself dream of the unlikely if not impossibly serendipitous love story through a Hallmark movie or two, my hope will not be in these trappings.

The Christmas ideal will not be mistaken for my Savior.