The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
Nearly 20 years ago, the associate rector of the church I served in Minneapolis proposed that we offer a service in Advent for those grieving the death of a child. We put candles throughout the sanctuary, arranged for beautiful music, and did everything we could think of to create an environment where mourning families might experience God’s presence in their pain.
The following Advent we expanded the circle to include all those grieving the death of any loved one. The next year we expanded further still, to encompass all manner of grief. Thus we took our place amid a growing movement in Christian communities that make space in Advent for grieving hearts.
I give thanks that several EDOW congregations are offering such services as a source of solace for those for whom Christmas is a painful time. For some, it is the only service that they can bear to attend. For others, it’s a relief to be with others for whom no explanation is needed for their tears. For all of us, it’s a reminder that Jesus is not afraid to make his home in our grief, and that what we celebrate at Christmas is large enough to hold the full range of human experience.
We don’t need a special service to acknowledge that sorrow and joy are intrinsically linked at Christmas. Given the suffering of this world and the grief we may carry, it can be hard–if not impossible for some–to join in the season’s festivities. There are times to dramatically scale back the exuberance, as Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem understandably have done this year in solidarity with those suffering in Gaza.
From the beginning, Christians have insisted that in the darkest times–and especially in those times–the light of Christ still shines. The light may seem to flicker like a candle in the wind; for a time, it may lie beyond our sight. But it’s here. He is here. The stories of Jesus’ birth in the most precarious of times and humblest conditions are meant to help us trust his presence in the places we feel least equipped to receive him, and for us to show up where love is needed most.
There’s an intentionality about celebrating Christmas that opens us to receive gifts of peace, joy and hope that we might otherwise miss. Just as the Sabbath comes each week, no matter if we have completed our work, Christmas comes each year, no matter our circumstance. Theologian Howard Thurman, himself no stranger to suffering, exhorts us to find space at Christmas for those fleeting moments of penetrating beauty and meaning when
the commonplace is shot through with new glory, old burdens become lighter, deep and ancient wounds lose much of their old, old hurting. A crown is placed over our heads that for the rest of our lives we are trying to grow old enough to wear. Despite all the crassness of life, despite all the hardness of life, despite all the harsh discords of life, life is saved by the singing of angels.1
Where might you go to hear the angels sing for you and all who suffer?
I also think of Christmas as a time to join with God in the holy work of shielding joy. Much of the season’s joy is vicarious–doing what we can to embody peace, hope, and love for others. Not only are we to cherish and savor joyful moments, but also to protect them, let them be the gift that they are, the means through which God comes to us in love.
Perhaps it’s as great a gift at Christmas to delight in another person’s happiness as it is to be in solidarity with another in their grief. Enjoy every minute my mother will say to me as I prepare to spend the week after Christmas with my children and grandchildren, even as she must remain in her small assisted living apartment, far from family, As I do, I will hold her in prayer, grateful for her generous love and sincere desire for me to be happy in ways now denied her.
To live as if the promises of Christmas are true–that God is with us, that Jesus makes his home in our world as it is and our lives as they are–is an act of courageous faith.
I pray that you may receive a palpable experience of Jesus’ loving presence with you this Christmas and join in ways of embodying his love for others.
I pray that we might be given ears to hear the angels sing their song of good news and great joy for all people. For to us is born a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
1Howard Thurman, Deep Is the Hunger (New York: Friends United Press, 1970)