Do you pack away your Christmas decorations as soon as celebrations are over? Do you quickly settle back into routine or hold on a bit longer? Perhaps you still have a few glistening ornaments and garlands lingering on railings and bookshelves well into January to keep the house from feeling bleak after the warmth and cheer of Christmas.
This can be a time to hold on to the hope Christmas brings a while longer. After all, this is the season of Epiphany, celebrated by churches across the world in different ways. Epiphany is typically celebrated on the first Sunday after January 6, focusing on the visit of the Magi and on the importance of giving and receiving gifts.
Some churches observe Epiphany until February 2, ending with the Feast of the Presentation, celebrating when Jesus was presented at the temple in Jerusalem 40 days after his birth. Other church traditions celebrate the season of Epiphany until Ash Wednesday, taking this time to examine the revelation of Jesus as the Messiah.
Yet on many liturgical calendars, the weeks between Christmas and Lent are called “Ordinary Time.”
For many, settling back to “ordinary” after Christmas is difficult. If you search “post-holiday depression” online, over one million links to how-to articles about “Beating the January Blues” or “Dealing with Post-Holiday Letdown” will pop up in less than a second.
In 2005, SkyTravel even created an advertising gimmick, naming January 24 as “Blue Monday” to entice people to solve post-holiday letdown with travel. While the pseudoscience of the formula used to identify “Blue Monday” as the most depressing day of the year is highly flawed, studies do indicate that there is an increase of depression during and after the holiday season. The Canadian Mental Health Association reports that the number and severity of calls by depressed persons increases during and after the holidays (cmha.ca).
Some researchers believe the January blues are caused by the return to work after festivities, Christmas debt or failed New Year’s resolutions. Others believe that post-holiday letdown happens because the build-up of excitement and expectation of the season doesn’t match reality.
After all the excitement of shepherds and kings, I wonder if Mary experienced letdown as she and Joseph fled to Egypt. She had just presented her son, the Saviour promised by God, at the temple but was now on the run for her life with her family. Were Simeon’s words, “And a sword will pierce your own heart too,” circling around in her mind as she travelled those fearful miles?
For some people, the post-holiday letdown may have been experienced because celebrating Christmas just wasn’t the same this year due to an empty place at the table. For others, the excitement about the birth of a baby boy in Bethlehem is a heavy reminder that their arms are still empty. Reminders of prayers that seem unanswered or unheard.
Ask and you shall receive
In the Scriptures, there are many instances where prayer was answered with a resounding “yes.” Hannah received the child she prayed for. Elijah called out to God and brought a widow’s son back to life.
But what about when God says no? Why are some healed from life-threatening diseases and not others? Did we not have enough faith? Did we not pray properly?
The Bible contains several verses that say if we believe, we will receive whatever we ask for by faith in prayer. These verses are hard to hear when we have begged our God with every fibre of our faith to intercede.
In her Bible study “Believing God,” Beth Moore writes “the deeper we have loved God, the deeper the potential for devastation when he doesn’t intervene as we know he can.”
Moore writes that few will escape a painful life experience that leaves us with the feeling that God has let us down. A time that our God did not live up to our expectations. A time when God says no.
One Tuesday morning, at our women’s Bible study, I was watching a video that traced the times the Israelites received what they asked for. As I tried to shake my own resurfacing feelings of disappointment, I wondered: With all the stories in Scripture about prayers that were answered with a “yes,” there must also be times when God said “no”? Despite years of Christian education and Bible studies, a story didn’t come immediately to mind.
But as I drove home that Tuesday morning, the answer hit me. Or as the Oxford English dictionary would define it, I had an epiphany – a revelation or sudden realization. An answer to a question that God was waiting for me to finally ask.
God said “no” to his beloved Son. Jesus, whose faith was perfect, asked and did not receive.
C. S. Lewis, in his essay “The Efficacy of Prayer” writes: “There are, no doubt, passages in the New Testament which may seem at first sight to promise an invariable granting of our prayers. But that cannot be what they really mean. For in the very heart of the story we meet a glaring instance to the contrary. In Gethsemane, the holiest of all petitioners prayed three times that a certain cup might pass from him. It did not. After that the idea that prayer is recommended to us as a sort of infallible gimmick may be dismissed.”
There are more instances in Scripture when God said no to his people. Moses wanted to enter the promised land. David wanted to build a house for God. Jeremiah was told to stop praying for Israel’s deliverance. Paul asked God three times to remove a thorn in his flesh but God said no.
Whatever is, is right
While some prayers are answered “yes,” some with “wait” and others “no,” the assurance that we belong body and soul to a God that loves us enough to say “no” to his one and only son is a comfort when we only see part of the picture. In his sermon “My Struggle with God,” Ray Stedman writes, “We all like to put God in a box, to program him . . . . Of course the problem is that we have picked just a part of what he has to say. None of us is big enough to see God in balance.”
While we cannot see the plan and purpose for our lives as God does, God reveals to us in Scripture his plan to save us, as prophesied by the Old Testament prophets and by Simeon in the temple courts at Jesus’ presentation. Whether celebrating the season of Epiphany or “Ordinary Time,” anytime can be the right time to look from the manger to the cross to see his gift of love, of denial and of sacrifice all wrapped up with a swaddling bow.
“See! and confess, one comfort still must rise;
‘Tis this: though man’s a fool, yet GOD IS WISE.”
– Excerpt from Alexander Pope,
“Essay on Man”