I have a friend for whom Christmas this year is more than usually a moment to taste the bitterness of loss and sorrow. She is having to go through all the motions, because of others, while still untangling the chaos of ordinary life mixed with crisis and pain. I have been praying for her a lot, and fretting over her wellbeing and wondering about the many people I don’t personally know, who have to endure a time of feasting and joy when what the heart really wants is an ash heap and solitude.
And really, even if I’m not there this year, I have been before, and will be again. We don’t go from glory to glory. We circle over and over through times of joy and times of sorrow, like loads of laundry. You think you’ve endured something and moved on, only of have new fresh grief bring remembrances of old ones.
The trouble is, the world demands untempered joy. It’s Christmas. Get it together. So what if you lost someone last week, or your marriage just ended, or your child was diagnosed with something hideous, or you just don’t have the emotional furniture required to deal with all the extra work and demands of the season. Turn that frown upside down and tuck all that trouble away. We don’t do unhappiness any more, not well. We wallow in irritation with ourselves and others when we’re not happy at the moment it’s time to be happy.
This is why it’s so important not to conflate the church’s celebration with the world’s. The world has its own measures of success and happiness, its own ways of rejoicing, and they usually involve you showing to everyone else who much you have it together and the beauty of your life overall. And you showing yourself that. Whereas the church’s celebration is about God overcoming the darkness of our human condition. These are two very different kinds of joy. The one floats on clouds of tinsel. The other passes through the valley of the shadow of death.
This is why the Infancy Narratives have to be read alongside, rubbing shoulders even, with the entire Old Testament. But if you find yourself in grief, and sorrow, and the pit, and the depths, then read the first chapters of each gospel at the same time that you are reading Isaiah 53-55. Isaiah 53 is really for Good Friday, of course, and for Holy Week. But it is also for the desperation and running of Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem, from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, and from Bethlehem to Egypt. It is for the moment when they arrive in the village of their ancestor and have no comfortable place to be, when no one recognizes the child but strangers, shepherds. “He had no form and majesty that we should look at him and no beauty that we should desire him.” The very moment of his birth foreshadows the darkness and grief of his death.We don’t read about Jesus’s life, we don’t read his words and his teachings and his stories and the accounts of all that happened to him in order to model ourselves after him, or to get a warm fuzzy feeling from the manger and the animals, or to gain some special insight to unlock a life well lived. That’s not what he is for, that’s not who he is.
No, we read, and watch, and agonize, and wonder because Isaiah cried out, “Seek the Lord while he wills to be found! Call upon him when he is near.” And moments before, “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters!” Don’t sit there trying to tell yourself that you’re not thirsty, you’re not hungry, you have it together, there is no grief, no trouble, no insurmountable woe that you cannot climb around or over and get away from. Don’t sit around in Bethlehem, cozy and warm, eating food that you bought for yourself and rejoicing in success that your own hand has wrought. Darkness is at the door. Evil lies close at hand, it is very near, in your own mouth and your own heart. The only way to survive, ultimately, is to go out through the darkness of death to behold one who would be so afflicted, so marred, that everyone would look away, would shudder.
And when you have found him, when you have worshiped him, an everlasting joy will break forth before you, sorrow and sighing will flee away.
This joy of Christmas, of the birth of the savior, should be the kind of anxious, grasping joy of one who sees something so beautiful, so desperate, so necessary that he, while all the world keeps running past, stops and won’t move a step lest the moment be lost. It is the joy of one who sees that the grief, the loss, the sorrow was not in vain, but was gathered up in the very body of the only one who can give life to the world.
A happy Christmas to you, beloved readers of this blog. May the God of peace fill you with his true peace, may the Word dwell richly in your heart and mind, may the Glory of God overshadow every moment of grief and exasperation that follows you today.