Every Christmas for the last five years, my wife Judy and I have made two trips to the airport. What a contrast! The two journeys with our son Bob, home for the holidays, form mirror images of each other.

Somewhere around mid-December, we float down the freeways to his gate to meet his plane. We stand on tiptoes to catch our first glimpse. There he is. He looks so mature. He walks with his “West Point” swagger.

Then he sees us. There’s that smile. That’s our boy! Bob’s home . . . and his fiancée too! We try to coordinate her flight from Detroit with his ride from the East Coast. Sometimes, like today, they arrive at LAX on the same plane.

I love the drive back home. Bob, with a mouthful of his favorite candy—spice drops from Costco—tries to catch us up on the too big chunk of life that we have missed. I take it all in through the rearview mirror of our van. There he is—his sweetheart on his arm, Mom turned around, his sister looking over his shoulder.

“Your dad’s going to barbecue a whole turkey!” they tell him.

“Boy, Dad, you’re really getting into it. Mom, will you make your regular turkey? I mean—just in case.”

As the euphoria of Bob’s Christmas homecoming carries us north on Interstate 605, I try not to look across the divider at the incoming traffic. But those southbound lanes remind me that in a few weeks, I’ll be back on this same freeway in this same van with these same people driving to the same airport. Sometimes to the same gate. Euphoria may be the last word you would use to describe that scene:

“Sir,” the attendant apologizes to our favorite cadet, “this is your last call to board the flight to Newark.”

My “last hug” comes first. “Bye, Son. I’m so proud of you. Finish well; walk with God. Don’t worry about your sweetheart—we’ll take care of her.”

He usually picks up his mom for a big bear hug. It always makes me think of the first time the two of them made eye contact in the delivery room—his little face looking up to her smiling, green eyes. Love at first sight. He was much smaller then.

He saves the last kiss for his sweetheart.

If there’s one thing soldiers know, it’s how to say goodbye. He wheels around and walks through the gate to a seat on a jet that will take him far away. As he walks, the swagger comes back—a defensive maneuver the decades of good-byes have ground into the West Point culture. He’s nobody’s boy where he is going. Just another cadet returning to the Academy. We all stand on tiptoes for that last glance.

He never looks back.

The ride home is way too long. Small talk distracts hurting hearts.

“He’s living his dream.”

“Spring break will be here before you know it.”

No it won’t. He’s not with us anymore. I can’t hear his laugh or see his face in the mirror. I forgot to ask him about his trip to Gettysburg. I wanted to show him those old pictures of his bird dog. But—no time.

I miss my boy.

Somewhere between LAX and our suburb of LaVerne, some leftover reminder of the catalyst for these two weeks we call “the holidays” hints at another reality. A church sign announces a worship service: Celebrate the Incarnation! A bumper sticker:Wise Men Still Seek Him. It really happened. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. I’m not as alone as I feel in this van tonight. And I will not always feel this way.

Someone is here with me. Someone reliable and strong. Someone watches over this van as it speeds through the hills of Southern California. That same Someone has His eye on the silver wings slicing east through the winter air. Someone is observing life on this tiny globe circling one of millions of stars in this enormous universe. Someone is there who loves me. Someone who visited our planet with one purpose—to rescue and to comfort people like me . . . at times like this.

His name is Jesus. The Christmas message is a startling message of hope for ruined humanity. The baby in the manger was God—the One to whom I now turn with the ache in my soul. He felt like this. He cried for His friend who died; he said good-bye to His mother from a cruel Roman cross.

This same Jesus promises someday to take all who believe in Him to another place—a special place He has prepared for each of us personally. He describes it as His Father’s house (John 14:1–4). We call it heaven. I won’t miss my boy there. There’ll be no good-byes. No airports. No hospitals. No tragic phone calls in the middle of the night. No caskets. Only the constant presence of the One who died for our sins. “[God] will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev. 21:4).

As our individual Christmas stories unfold this holiday season, most of us will turn to a page we would rather skip. The loved one with the drinking problem who finds a way to ruin our best times. An empty chair at the table this year. A marriage hanging on by the thin wire of loveless commitment. Our yearly reminder of just how dysfunctional our family really is. This season that brings such joy also proves that life on earth fails to give us what we really need and want.

The Christmas story is for more than just Christmas morning. It’s for airports and hospitals, bedsides and gravesides. It’s for good-byes and bad news, losses and losers. It’s for those times when we feel most overwhelmed by this sin-scarred world.

We may not always have a perfect Christmas, but we have a perfect Savior. Someone came to earth on a starlit night in Bethlehem to offer hope to all who believe.

Merry Christmas!

Ed Underwood (Th.M. 85) is senior pastor of Church of the Open Door in Glendora, California.