My three-year old son and I have a wonderful little work we do on Mondays and Thursday evenings. Our neighbor, who is a widow, no longer possesses the balance and strength to take her garbage can out. We head to her back yard and my son’s little hands grasp the garbage handle and out we go to drop it off at the curb. It is great training in service. And he is a true little gentleman already.
But something different happened this past Thursday. Our neighbor asked us to go inside and plug something in she was not able to do, which we did promptly. On our way out my boy looked at her and said “Merry Christmas.” She smiled at him, but as he rushed to get on his bike, our 86 year old neighbor looked at me and started to cry. Her husband, a dear man, and a grandfatherly figure to my children, died last year. “Don’t ask me to have a merry Christmas. I don’t know if I can,” she said. Her words were piercing. Her grief evident. Her husband of 60 years was no longer here with her. Her comfort and joy had departed.
And then last night we were struck again. In the middle of a cheery evening, my cell phone rang. The number was foreign to me, but I decided to pick it up anyway. It was my old college professor. She and her husband both taught my wife and I in a small Christian College in Central Florida. Since retiring, they both moved to beloved Pensacola, Fl. Once in a while we see each other and exchange greetings and memories. Last week, while visiting my chiropractor, she was there. It was a delight to see her again. She told me about her husband and how it would be lovely if we met for lunch one of these days. Then last night, that foreign number was hers. She called me to let me know that her husband of more than 50 years past away two days earlier.
My sister-in-law told us it was a difficult day for her and close friends who lost a loved one of 19 years of age. Death’s sting lost much of its potency, but its affects are very present.
How can Christmas be merry for those who are grieving? We often overlook those grieving this time of the year. In the midst of the grand narrative of the nativity, the incarnation of joy is reason for sorrow.
No more let sins and sorrows grow…
There is a paradoxical dimension to Christmas. In one sense, the “hopes and fears of all the years” are met in the God-man. But sorrows are still here. Incarnation theology always needs to be connected to a healthy psalmic lament. Our lives provide plenty of moments of disorientation. A loved one who dies days before one of the most festive days in the Christian calendar offers a lesson to all of us. The light of the world is here. The life of the world is here, but still death is not fully destroyed. The “tidings of comfort and joy” may be for some of us an exhortation to become comfort and joy to those who are comfortless and filled with grief this time of the year. Who are these people? Who are they in our own congregations? That mother who lost a son and whose memories are still freshly imprinted? That widow or widower who lost a lover and comforter? Who are they? Let us seek them out. Do not let their grief be a lonely grief. Only grieving together makes grieving a profoundly biblical emotion.
I weep for those whose loved ones are not here to share in the feast of the Christmas season. But Christmas is not just a message for the jolly; it is a message for the grieving also. Christmas means that grieving is not meaningless. In fact, grieving only makes sense in a world incarnated by God. Christ came for those who grieve. As the Psalmist cries out:
Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress;
my eye is wasted from grief;
my soul and my body also (Psalm 31:9).
The incarnation answers the Psalmists’ petition.
Frederick Buechner once wrote that “The incarnation is a kind of vast joke whereby the Creator of the ends of the earth comes among us in diapers… Until we too have taken the idea of the God-man seriously enough to be scandalized by it, we have not taken it as seriously as it demands to be taken.” Those who are scandalized rightly by this profound event are those who can grieve rightly.
As I look across the street I notice that my neighbor’s sons have arrived. They will help her in her grief. The merriness of Christmas is not dependent on whether we are ready to receive it or not, Christmas is merry because the Rod of Jesse is here. But still our hearts ache and we are called to grieve with those who grieve. We grieve, however, with hope because our hope is here. And so we pray:
O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel!