Warning: I’m going to get real here. If you’re in the mood to be “Merry and Bright” you might want to skip this. But you will find good news if you keep reading. The best news. I promise.
This morning, I was walking around my house feeling pretty blue. The song that was stuck in my head? “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” All I could think? “That’s a lie”. It’s the darkest week of the year. For a Pastor, it is the highest-pressure time of the year. And for me, it can be the saddest time of year. It didn’t used to be this way. But after having lost both of my parents, the woman I called “Grandma Gladys” and my brother by the age of 42, Christmas has taken a dramatic shift.
In my family room sits a big, comfy chair in which two people who really like each other can comfortably sit. I bought this chair because it reminded me of the chair in my growing-up-home. It was a typical 1970’s brown and orange striped chair in soft velour. The one in my house is the early-2000’s slightly-updated version. I love this chair. But this time of year, every time I look at it, I have a feeling of emptiness that wells up in the deepest part of me. Most of the time I can push the feeling down, but sometimes it overtakes me and turns into deep sadness.
In our house, Christmas used to go like this: The girls would wake up too early for this Pastor-Mom who had been at church until 1:00a.m. on Christmas Eve. But the joy in their voices overwhelmed me and I would hop out of bed, eager to witness their excitement. Before my feet hit the ground, I would call my Mom who would happily get out of bed, get dressed, and come bounding into our house about 20 minutes later. (A small miracle as my Mom’s speed was approximately that of molasses). When Mom arrived at our house, she would plop down in my favorite chair. Sometimes I squished in there with her as we watched my girls open their presents with shrieks of delight. This was the same tradition we had with Grandma Gladys when I was a kid. My sister and I would run around the house going completely crazy with anticipation until Grandma finally arrived and we could tear into the wonder of Christmas. After that, we ate eggs with ham chopped up in them and moved from Santa gifts to family gifts where my Dad would sit in the big striped chair and pile all of his presents on his lap with a cheesy grin on his face. My brother, who was quadriplegic and could barely talk, would often be wearing a Santa hat and a huge smile. I can still hear his roaring laughter as he watched my sister and me tearing around the house all hopped up on Christmas cheer.
While my Mom was still around, I had all of the good memories from Christmas past, and would occasionally feel the sadness sink in at the reality of empty seats at the table. For the most part, though, I could be in the moment – thanking God for my beautiful family and delighting in their Christmas Joy. But the year my Mom died, there was a tectonic shift in the season. That year, there was no early-morning phone call to Grandma. That year, I begrudgingly rolled out of bed, more dreading than anticipating the day. My kid’s cheer felt gut-wrenching to me because I simply couldn’t get there.
That year, the big-striped chair sat empty until I finally crawled up in it, wrapped myself in a blanket and let the tears flow. I remember thinking I was being a huge bummer. But that feeling of raw grief was too overwhelming to mask with Holiday Cheer. As soon as my family saw what was happening, they immediately piled on top of me, which was so sweet and comforting. We held each other and talked about Grandma. It was a horrible and beautiful moment, reminding me that although my Mom was gone, I was not alone. It didn’t take away the sadness, but it did spark in me a tiny bit of joy in the midst of grief; a flicker of light in deep darkness.
I have to admit, this is what it has been like for me the past three years. No matter how hard I try, no matter how many parties I throw or how much Holiday Cheer I try to manufacture, I cannot get there. I can’t push back the darkness. I can’t pretend “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” because, quite frankly – this is the time of the year when all of the memories come flooding back and my heart, like my favorite chair on Christmas morning, feels more empty than full. But in a strange way, this time of year has also become more real and more meaningful to me. No longer do I pour all of my energy into shopping, cooking and manufacturing a mood of good cheer. Instead, every ornament I hang, every sermon I write, every song I sing, every gift I buy has new meaning. I have come to realize how precious this gift of life – and how fleeting. And when it comes to Christmas, I have a strong desire to dig more deeply into what it means that God comes to be with us.
As I write this, I know of a family who is saying goodbye to a beloved husband, father, grandfather and friend. As I write this, I think of the many heart-breaking and untimely deaths I have witnessed this year. I picture the children who have lost a parent, the spouses who have lost a partner, the parents who have buried their children. I know the emptiness. I know the feeling of loss and heartache. And my heart aches for them as they face this first Christmas.
I am reminded though, in the midst of all the pain and emptiness, that this is why Jesus came to earth. He didn’t come to bake Christmas cookies or play the part of Santa Claus who grants every last wish. He didn’t come to manufacture happiness or good cheer. For Jesus there was no such thing as “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”
Jesus came to show us that God is WITH US in our suffering. Not just this time of year but every day for all of our lives. Jesus came in the midst of a world that can sometimes be cruel and heartless to show us that we have a God who does not stand next to the empty chair and feel sorry for us. We have a God who piles on top of us, love upon love, grace upon grace and says, “I am here. I am with you. I am for you. I love you.” Jesus comes as a flicker of light in the darkness, a spark of joy in the sadness, a fulfillment of all the emptiness that we feel in this life and this world. Jesus is God with us. Emmanuel.
To all of those walking in deep darkness this Christmas, may you know that God is with you. May you know that although everyone around you may seem “Merry and Bright,” there is so much more beneath the surface. Christmas – the real Christmas is about the fulfillment of love. At the birth of this baby, all heaven and earth rejoices in a deep, earth-shaking, life-changing way. God rips heaven open and comes to earth because He simply can’t stand to see us alone and lost in darkness. This is the God we worship. A God who piles upon us, grace upon grace, love never-ending, and life everlasting.
May the real spirit of Christmas, the spirit of Jesus Christ, sink deep into your hearts. And may you always know – you are not alone. You are never alone.
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
“From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.”
- John 1