Weeping When the World is Jolly

I had to turn off the Christmas radio yesterday.  It was just too jolly.  It felt so artificial, so Aluminum-Charlie-Brown-Christmas-Tree.

There are moments I find myself wanting to weep when the rest of the world is jolly.  Today my friends should be celebrating their son’s first birthday, but instead they are grieving his death.  Today other friends are realizing that this is the first time they won’t have Christmas at grandma’s.  Others will pick up the phone to call their parent, only to remember there’s no one to call.  Today many people in my little bubble of a world are turning off the Christmas radio because the jolly is just too. darn. painful.  

And I find myself grieving with them.  

We have a tradition in our family when we celebrate a holiday meal.  We gather in a circle around the food and hold hands.  Usually my brother or dad will make some kind of joke, someone will say something inappropriate (probably my husband), everyone will laugh (even the kids, though they don’t understand why), and then we’ll give thanks to God for our family and our food.  There’s something indescribably precious about this moment to me – the clasped hands, the playful banter, the love in the room so thick you can feel it.  You know you belong.  You know you are home.

When I clasped hands last week with family and friends-that-are-basically-family around our Thanksgiving feast, I had a private moment of grieving in my heart.  I noticed who wasn’t in that circle.  Family and friends who have passed on to the next life.  I thought of all my friends who are clasping hands with their loved ones and desperately missing that one person who is supposed to be there.

There’s so much pressure in the holiday season to embrace the merriment of parties and Christmas radio and pictures with Santa.  Even if we don’t feel very merry, we’re supposed to fake our way to it – as if getting our holiday celebrations right can cure all that ails us.

It’s almost like you aren’t allowed to be heartbroken after Thanksgiving.  Or angry.  Or confused.  Or hopeless.  Or all of the above.

But then I think of Jesus.  His birth wasn’t jolly or merry.  It was scandalous and scary and dirty (would you want to welcome your child into the world in a primitive stable surrounded by smelly animals?).  His birth made the angels sing, yes, but it also made his family into refugees to escape the wrath of Herod.  His birth and life were messy and complicated, full of love and grief and the stuff of real life.

Jesus wasn’t born to make us pretend to be happy when our hearts are heavy.  No, Jesus was born as God-in-the-flesh so that God could know what it means to be human.  Our joys and laughter, yes.  But also our heartache and grief and longing and anger.  God doesn’t shy away from our sorrow and anger, as if it’s too scary.  God doesn’t pretend everything’s okay.  

The image of Jesus that I’m holding on to today is not of a picture-perfect swaddled baby cooing in a manger, but of a grown man completely falling apart at a fresh grave.  When his friends wept in grief for their beloved Lazarus, Jesus wept with them.  That’s how deeply he feels our pain. 

I believe that’s part of what Jesus was born to do.  He was born into this weary world to know the depths of our pain.  To tell us that even in the worst pain, we are never facing the isolation and heartache and anger alone.

So my friends, whatever grave you are standing by weeping, know that I am standing with you.  I am here to tell you: it’s okay to weep when everyone else is jolly.  I’m weeping with you.  Jesus is weeping with us, too.  Because that’s what Jesus was born to do.  He was born to meet us in our pain and bless us there, especially when a blessing seems impossible.

I ran across a quote by Henri Nouwen a few weeks ago that has been working its way through my aching heart like a healing balm.  It goes like this:

“When the Spirit of Jesus lives in our hearts, all who have lived their lives in that Spirit live there too.”

When my family was holding hands around our Thanksgiving meal and I felt the sting of grief, these words fluttered through my mind and hugged my heart. And then I smiled: the people who I desperately missed seeing around the circle weren’t completely missing after all.  They were there – living, speaking, giving thanks – in the holy space of all our hearts.  Jesus’ love and Jesus’ Spirit made it so.

Perhaps this is also a reason for God becoming human. Perhaps Jesus came to bring heaven to earth: to unite us in a heavenly bond of love that is stronger than death.

I know this epiphany of mine won’t cure your sorrow or make it all better.  But I’m going to hold on to it still, because it will help me remember what Christmas is about:

It’s about a God who chose to come and be with us in all our messiness.  

It’s about a God who blesses us when our heart is so broken there is nothing left to bless.  

It’s about a God who binds us together in love, love that is everlasting – even into the life beyond.

*The Henri Nouwen quote is from a collection of his reflections called Bread for the Journey.

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