Let’s face it: for many of us, Christmas is (or has been) one downright lousy time of year that can’t be over soon enough. If you resonate with that, chances are you have experienced significant grief during the holiday season and were not given any meaningful way of acknowledging and expressing your grief during this “most wonderful time of the year.”
It’s difficult enough to meaningfully grieve in a culture that is too disconnected to recognize sorrow and loss, choosing instead to dilute our most precious feelings into a flaccid “fine” and “okay.” But couple that with a time of year all about peace, joy, faith, family, and abundance, it can leave us in a state of bewildered detachment. It’s terribly lonely. We feel cheated and wronged.
The problem is that all too often, Christmas leaves grieving people no place to grieve. There seems to be nowhere to latch our grief. Mistletoe, presents under the tree, mirth, gaiety, and sing-songy Christmas tunes don’t apply to a broken heart.
Yet last night, I shared in a special Christmas worship service that was designed for people grieving through the holidays. It was called a Blue Christmas service. Maybe you’ve heard of them. It’s a quiet, reflective time of prayer, sharing, and singing meaningful songs of faith that are not loud and rapturous but tender and soothing. I shared a very short reflection. And at the end, everyone was invited to light a candle in memory or honor of a lost or hurting loved one, or even for themselves. They were given an opportunity, if they wished, to share why they lit their candle and to know that we were there to listen and grieve with them, sharing our own grief, too. I could see the weight of unacknowledged grief coming off of our shoulders and peoples’ tears flowing steadily and unhindered. You could sense the release and freedom in that time of worship.
Personally, I got to do something I had never done before. I got to light a candle in memory of my first fiancée Diane Michelle Thompson, who died at the age of 22, just four months shy of our wedding. She died years ago and I’ve since then happily married and have children, but for the first time I could publicly acknowledge her death as a moment of worship during Christmas and allow yet another layer of grief pass. I also remembered the Christmases I spent after my last marriage ended and I found myself alone, without my daughter Grace there with me. That too, I could share and remember as a moment of worship during Christmas.
But how is this possible? Where is the joy? How does one worship and praise God during Christmas when in the midst of grief?
In the lowest points during my worst Christmas seasons, I would dig more deeply into Scripture to see if there was something of the Christmas story that could speak to my grief. Sure enough, there is. Last night I shared my discovery with my fellow worshippers:
How did the Son of God choose to make his entrance into the world? Was it in a stately palace among throngs of royal admirers? No. Was it in the Holy of Holies within the great temple in Jerusalem to be adored by the priests? No. And while we’re at it, forget the cuddly, cute images of manger scenes.
Mary and Joseph were poor peasants who were forced, probably at the final minute, to have Jesus born in the last possible place to duck in. There was no more room left at Bethlehem’s inn. So I imagine they hurried into the first thing they could find. It was a smelly, dirty stable stall. Mary delivered Jesus, and then spotted a feeding trough to lay him, wrapped with whatever rags they could find to swaddle him. They were alone. They had nothing. They were unwanted. There was no joyful procession of choirs and orchestras. It was a quiet, unnoticed beginning for the Word made flesh. It was a painful way for the Son of God to begin his life.
Jesus’ life began and ended much the same way. Over thirty years later, Jesus would once again find himself alone, rejected, and unwanted– God’s ultimate gift to humankind thrown in the dumpster heap of Golgotha, despised by the whole world. It’s no wonder one of the ancient prophesies describing Messiah said,
He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. (Isaiah 53:3, KJV)
In my times of deepest grief, especially during the Christmas season, this is the Jesus I hold onto. He is the Jesus who is no stranger to grief. He is the Jesus who understands and embraces my pain as his own. He is the Jesus of whom the angels sing their songs of glory and praise.
From this particular shared embrace between Jesus and myself comes joy– not tinsel joy!– but honest to goodness joy that comes from the love and embrace of Jesus Christ, Jesus of the manger stall and the cross. I find hope again. And that, my friends, is a joy to the world which I can truly sing about today and always, whether I’m mired in grief or dancing in the dawn of new Christmas morning.