“Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.” These immortal words were spoken by little Zuzu, played by Karolyn Grimes in the beloved Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. But for Grimes, “life has never been wonderful.” In a 2011 interview with NBC news, she chronicles the death of her parents at age 12, her upbringing by her religiously-strict aunt and uncle, her husband’s cancer, her son’s suicide. Yet she could always find comfort in looking back at the film that granted her early fame:
“It’s not a Christmas movie, not a movie about Jesus or Bethlehem or anything religious like that…It’s about how we have to face life with a lot of uncertainty, and even though nobody hears it, most of us ask God to show us the way when things get really hard… and (like in the film) it can be in Martini’s (bar), not a church on Christmas.”
Many people in our world feel the same—that religion has let them down, that Christmas can’t possibly bring us the joy it promises, as though Hallmark had written a check reality could never cash.
Jesus’ family tree contains a similar story. In Matthew 1:5 we read that Jesus’ genealogy contains “Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth…”
The story of Ruth is a story of faith in hard times, of finding joy even in the margins. The story is set during the time of the Judges, and its opening chapter deals a shocking blow as we narrow our focus to the characters of Naomi and Ruth:
In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. 2 The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. 3 But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4 These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years, 5 and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.
In a primitive, patriarchal society, this was harsh news—and in some ways represented a possible death sentence. Without the support and security of husbands, these women were forced to fend for themselves—made all the worse by the fact that “there was a famine in the land” (Ruth 1:1).
What would become of Naomi’s daughters-in-law now that their husbands had passed on?
6 Then she arose with her daughters-in-law to return from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the fields of Moab that the Lord had visited his people and given them food. 7 So she set out from the place where she was with her two daughters-in-law, and they went on the way to return to the land of Judah.8 But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go, return each of you to her mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. 9 The Lord grant that you may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband!” Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept. 10 And they said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.”11 But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters; why will you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? 12 Turn back, my daughters; go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. If I should say I have hope, even if I should have a husband this night and should bear sons,13 would you therefore wait till they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me.” 14 Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. And Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.
In his commentary on Ruth, Frederic Bush observes that given the primitive living conditions of the ancient world, it’s understandable that these women would abandon their mother-in-law in favor of finding their own security. In some ways, it’s almost like on the airplane when you’re told that in an emergency, you should secure your own oxygen mask before you try and assist someone else. But at the same time, we may marvel at the faith of Ruth—who clings, we’re told, to Naomi even though she’s not flesh-and-blood.
15 And she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” 16 But Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.” 18 And when Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more.
Now the story has established this elegant yet sad partnership of Naomi and Ruth. Like some men come to a funeral, these two women came to the town of Bethlehem.
19 So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. And when they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them. And the women said, “Is this Naomi?” 20 She said to them, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. 21 I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the Lord has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?”
22 So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabite her daughter-in-law with her, who returned from the country of Moab. And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest.
In the ancient world, names could often be used to reveal (or at least reflect) the contents of your heart. So Naomi changed her name from Naomi (which meant “sweetness” or “pleasantness”) to Mara (meaning “bitter”).
At this point in the story, we find no real hope of resolution. And perhaps we needn’t search for one. The story, of course, is not over, but we remain confronted by the reality that life will not always bring comfort or immediate satisfaction. Suffering is a part of life—part of the Christian journey, in fact. Disappointment haunts us; anxiety lurks around every bend. At Christmastime, these emotions become magnified by memories of loss, and reminders of failure. The Christmas cards you sign by yourself—and not with your husband or wife. The mantle that features one fewer stocking than last year—or the dinner table with one less plate. Go through these experiences—endure these hardships—and Naomi’s name-change will no longer seem so strange. Freud once argued that when we lose someone, we mourn not just the loss of the person but the loss of our role in relationship to that person. He used the example of mothers who lost sons during wars. These mothers grieve not just their sons, but also their identity as mothers. Naomi experienced this same thing—and perhaps you do, too. She missed her husband, she missed her sons—but she also had to grieve the fact that she was no longer a wife or a mother.
We can be thankful, then, that in our suffering we can still cling to the hope that we are adopted into God’s family. Our earthly identities—whether as parents or spouses—may shift with the harsh winds of time and pain. But the enduring truth is that we may count ourselves connected to God and his great family of believers.
And we can be all the more confident that God’s story hasn’t finished yet. It’s no accident that the church historically celebrated “Advent”—looking not just to Jesus’ first coming, but his second. A time when all would be made new. When death and pain would be conquered. Christmas—insofar as it is a day on the calendar—cannot possibly contain all of this hope. All of this joy. We must therefore learn to suffer as we look forward to this new day.
Just hold on. Try to hold on.