Immanuel: Christmas and Loneliness

By Barbara Boatwright, Ph.D.

Isaiah 7:14 And the virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel- which means, “God with us.”

A couple of weeks ago, an unexpected package arrived in the mail from Amazon that I had not ordered. In it was Tim Keller’s newest book, called Hidden Christmas, The Surprising Truth Behind the Birth of Christ.  I love Tim Keller’s books. In that moment, I could not resist perusing the first chapter, and of course, I got hooked. The book was timely as I had been meditating on the meaning of Jesus’ name, “Immanuel, God with us” in preparation for this month’s article.

One of the reasons Keller wrote the book is his concern that in an increasingly secular and commercialized world, we are losing the meaning of Christmas as it becomes just another “holiday.” Keller appreciates that the basic roots of Christmas (such as the value of family and generously giving to those closest to us and those in need), remain the focus of the season, given that there is so little understanding of the depth and breadth of the real meaning of Jesus’ birth into the world.

For believers, the emphasis on connecting with family and more importantly, with Jesus, as the true “reason for the season,” challenges us to address the contrasting fact that Christmas is also the loneliest time of year for many people. Loneliness occurs when people feel alone and isolated when they long for and need connection. It is a painful response to our core need for intimacy being unmet. The Huffington Post reports that we live in “the age of loneliness,” and in the West, studies consistently indicate that one in four people suffer from persistent loneliness, a number that spikes precipitously during the holidays. Fully one quarter of adults in America report that they have no one with whom they can share their personal troubles, and the number doubles to 50% if family members are excluded.

Additionally, the impact of social isolation and loneliness is extremely harmful to our physical and emotional health. Loneliness decreases life expectancy to the same degree as smoking, and is considered two times more dangerous to physical health than obesity. Both emotional and physical pain are exacerbated when we are alone.  Lonely people often lose their sense of purpose and meaning in life. In fact, some scientists now believe this breakdown is the root cause of addictions, as relief from disconnectedness is sought through substances and other numbing activities. It is ironic, that in the age of instant communication and social media, we are living in an increasingly isolated society and people are lonelier than ever before.

Conversely, science consistently reveals the healing benefits of the presence of God and others. The experience of physical pain is actually reduced when another person is present, especially when the relationship is one characterized by love. We are wired for connection, and we literally do not live or thrive without it. Look up the story of “The Rescue Hug” on YouTube for a poignant example of the intrinsic power of connection to sustain life.

What can we learn from Jesus and the circumstances of His coming to mankind that can help us address the pervasive problem of loneliness and disconnection?

One of Jesus’ many attributes is as our “Wonderful Counselor” (Isaiah 9:6). Keller writes, “When you are going through something difficult, it’s good to talk to someone who has walked the same path, who knows personally what you have been going through. If God has really been born in a manger, then we have something that no other religion even claims to have. It’s a God who truly understands you, from the inside of your experience. There’s no other religion that says God has suffered, that God had to be courageous, that he knows what it is like to be abandoned by friends, to be crushed by injustice, to be tortured and die. Christmas shows he knows what you are going through. When you talk to him, he understands.”

Jesus is also the perfect comforter. Keller continues:

“The incarnation means that God suffered, and that Jesus triumphed through suffering. That means, as Hebrews 2:17-18 said, that Jesus has an infinite power to comfort. Christmas shows you a God unlike any god of any other faith. Have you been betrayed? Have you been lonely? Have you been destitute? Have you faced death? So has He! Some say, “You don’t understand. I have prayed to God for things, and God ignored my prayer.” In the garden of Gethsemane Jesus cried out, “Father…may this cup be taken from me” (Matthew 23:39) and he was turned down. Jesus knows the pain of unanswered prayer. Some say, “I feel like God has abandoned me.” What do you think Jesus was saying on the cross when he said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Christianity says God has been all the places you have been; he has been in the darkness you are in now, and more. And, therefore, you can trust him; you can rely on him, because he knows and has the power to comfort, strengthen, and bring you through.”

Jesus truly is Immanuel- He is God, He is human, and He is with us. He promises that His presence will always bring us His rest- a state of undisturbed well being. His presence offers us peace in the midst of the of circumstances that would defy human understanding. Spending time with Him renews our strength. In His presence, we become rooted and grounded in love- which is the oxygen for our souls, and the connection we need to thrive in this world. Jesus coming into our world fully human and fully divine assures us with the wondrous news that we never really are alone!

Our part is to cultivate His presence in our lives. We usher in His presence with worship and gratitude for His love and coming to earth to reconnect us into right relationship with God and each other by His work on the cross. No longer separated from God by sin, we are invited instead to abide in Him- connected to Him as our life source, as a branch is to a vine.

Jesus regularly retreated to places of solitude where He reconnected with His Father. In this loving communion, Jesus was refreshed and equipped with the strength and guidance He needed to face each task before Him- as can we.

in Hebrew, the word for Love is silent- just a sound of inhaling and exhaling. The meaning describes such closeness with our beloved that we breathe in the breath of the other. This level of intimacy is called panim el panim, which means face to face. In the Garden, our Abba Father God breathed life and his love into us. He is the very breath of life. Scripture also tells us that “the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, just as a man speaks to his friend.” (Exodus 33:11).

Jesus’ relationship with the disciples is described as that of teacher and friend. As His followers, we are also His disciples, and He, too calls us “friend” (John 15:15).  We are offered the gift of friendship with the Lord and King of the Universe! In that friendship, Jesus offers us to be with us and never forsake us in any circumstance. He offers us His unfailing presence, love, peace, and joy every day, in any situation, for all of eternity. He is the remedy for loneliness and disconnection. In John 15, Jesus commands us to do the same with our fellow man. He says, “love one another, just as I have loved you.”

How does this translate to those we know who are lonely, disconnected, and in need of some truly Good News?  May we take this message of Christmas, that we are deeply loved and never alone, and share it with others, not only in December, but every day of the year.

Challenge: As Christians, we have the answer for the loneliness in the world, and we are called to live that answer with others. Whether you are in a place of loneliness or surrounded by friends and family, the command is the same. Ask God to place someone on your mind and heart someone who needs to know that they are remembered and cared for this Christmas, and ask Him how you can connect with and bless that person. It may be someone as close as a family member or a neighbor, or someone you barely know who crosses your path. Purpose to reach out in love to that person or family, and write me with stories of Good News, as you seek to honor Jesus’ commandment to love others well. We can bring the remedy to loneliness in our community one person at a time.

This year, invite someone into the warmth of your life or home and do not tell them that there is no room at the Inn.

(As seen in the December 2016 edition of The Carolina Compass.)