“Joy to the world, the Lord is come!”

So begins one of the most popular Christmas hymns of all time. And joy is certainly an appropriate response to God coming to earth. The angel who announced the birth of Jesus Christ to the shepherds said, “Behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

The angel announced joy, so it is no wonder those celebrating the birth of Christ have an expectation of joy as Christmas approaches each year. But what of those for whom the hymn rings hollow when it describes all people singing, leading the earth itself to “repeat the sounding joy”?

Can there be Christmas joy for those who are mourning?

Exactly 30 years ago I was anticipating my first Christmas as a parent. My son had been born that June and the joy I felt in looking forward to that Christmas was entirely new to me. Early in the season, I carefully selected materials to handcraft a beautiful Christmas stocking to hang for Jacob his first Christmas Eve. I made sure to buy enough fabric, ribbons, and appliqués to make matching stockings in future years for the brothers and sisters I hoped he would have.

There were more stockings made in future years — four stockings in all, for four children. And there was much joy in many years of Christmas celebrations. This year, however, will be the 10th Christmas for Jacob’s stocking to rest unused at the bottom of its storage bin. This will be the 10th Christmas since Jacob died.

Every year I am painfully aware of the empty place on the fireplace mantel where his stocking should hang. Every year the grief resurfaces. To whatever extent a Christmas celebration involves family gathering together, a family that has lost a loved one is left with a hole in their hearts.

In fact, nearly all of us are feeling some sense of loss this Christmas. How can we experience joy at Christmas — or any other time of year — when we continue to mourn our losses?

For me, the answer is found right in the Christmas story. As much as we would all like to have the angel’s announcement of joy mean that there would be no more pain or suffering once the Christ child was born, the reality is that Jesus Christ was born for pain and suffering. He was born so that He could die. The eternal Son of God who, as God, could not possibly die, wrapped Himself with human flesh so that He could die and rise again to overcome death.

Even a relatively unknown biblical character named Simeon knew that Jesus would suffer. Just days after their baby was born, Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the temple to present the child and make sacrifices according to the Law of Moses. Simeon, led by the Holy Spirit, recognized this baby as the Christ. As Simeon thanked the Lord for seeing this salvation, he also warned Mary, “and a sword will pierce through your own soul also.”

From the time of Jesus’ birth, mourning was already built into Christmas.

This truth forces us to rethink what the Bible means by “joy.” Biblical joy is not happiness that is based in present circumstances. The joy that God calls us to is much deeper than that. Biblical joy coexists with suffering. In fact, there is evidence that biblical joy is actually enriched by suffering.

God designed us to be in a relationship with Him. As we lift our pain to Him, He shares His love and comfort with us. It is both my experience and a Scriptural promise that God’s presence is most clearly perceived by the brokenhearted who seek Him.

The call of Scripture is neither to ignore our pain nor to force a happy attitude. Instead, believers are encouraged to endure suffering with hope for the future. Since our hope is placed in the promises of a faithful God who loves us, we will not be disappointed. This hope for the future is the solid foundation for joy that transcends grief.

But what exactly is our future hope? What has God promised us? Just as Jesus’ suffering and death gave way to the joy of His resurrection, God promises that believers’ mourning will be overcome by resurrection and eternal life. We are called to endure the difficulties of this life, looking to the example of Jesus, who endured the cross “for the joy set before him” — the joy of the resurrection and all it would accomplish.

The ultimate joy of Christmas is not just in the fact that God has come to earth. The joy of Christmas also includes all that Jesus accomplished in His life, death and resurrection. It extends to knowing that the Son ascended to the right hand of God, where He intercedes for believers to experience the same victory in our own resurrection at the end this age.

The joy that the angel announced to the shepherds was never just about a birth, but about the entire plan of redemption that God was beginning to reveal in that birth.

The joy of Christmas is not only coupled with mourning, but it has victory over mourning. This joy climbs onto mourning’s back to rise even higher after enduring suffering. Scripture promises that there will come a time when, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

Although the shadow of mourning cast across the birth of Christ, His birth also anticipates everlasting joy and the end of all mourning.