Her loved one died a few years ago, and she feels like she’s gotten past the initial waves of grief. But at Christmas, she finds it hard to hold back tears.
His situation isn’t comfortable, but he seems to have accepted that. He understands he can’t force change, and he’s decided to wait for the Lord. But during the holiday season, he struggles a bit more than usual to be okay with the way things are.
They’ve prayed for children, and they long to be parents, but they remain a family of two. They understand the Lord is good. They don’t question that truth. But when the weather starts to change and the lights and decorations begin to go up around the town, they feel the ache grow a little stronger.
Christmas is a source of great joy. From the generosity of friends and family to the warmth of love all around, we have much to rejoice in during the holiday season. We’re reminded of Jesus’s birth, of God’s gift of love for a lost world, and we revel in the hope we have through him. Despite the darkness and despair of the rest of the year, Christmas comes as a deep breath, a welcome rest, a warm reminder that light always endures.
Why, then, can this season also make us sad?
In part, I think it’s because of the perspective this season brings. We see in Christmas a bit of the way things ought to be. Peace on earth and good will among men (Luke 2:14) is glimpsed at Christmas, even in a world that remains far from the King. And when we see more clearly how things ought to be, we see more clearly and feel more deeply the way things are now broken. We feel loss a bit more acutely, longing for the fellowship we can no longer access. We struggle with deferred hopes, the sting of present sorrows sinking a bit deeper into our souls. We know the world is broken, and we grieve.
But the sadness of this season is really more bittersweet, for sorrow doesn’t get the final word. We’re reminded of our loss and grief at Christmas, but we’re reminded too of the way God is making all things new. Because of Jesus, everything has changed. Sorrow turns to joy, suffering turns to growth, loss is turned to gain, and confusion is swallowed up in a greater certainty. Pain and hardship are real, but they exist as parts of a larger story, one which makes sense of them and redeems them. Christmas affirms the darkness of the night and promises a bright and fast-approaching dawn.
It isn’t wrong to mourn when we feel sad this season. The absences we feel are real and meaningful. This broken world is a painful world. But we can also rejoice with a joy that runs far deeper than any despair, a love that runs far deeper than any heartbreak, and a hope that runs far deeper than any sorrow. Christmas reminds us that the sad things are temporary things. We ache now because things are not the way they should be, but we are approaching a day when all will be well. So grieve and rejoice. Feel deeply the loss as well as the love. And look to the one whose birth brought hope for all hurting hearts.
I’ve been reading a book about a haunted house, and I’ve been struck with how simple the recipe has been for creating the setting. So far, the author has simply taken things that are good, sacred, or safe, and he’s inverted them in some way. Mealtimes, normally times of nourishment and fellowship, become settings for chaos and division. Chapels, normally places of peace and holiness, become places of disquiet and depravity. Bedrooms, normally places of rest and safety, become places of fear and danger. In many ways, sometimes subtle and sometimes blatant, the author turns the natural into the unnatural, and the result is largely unsettling.
You’ve likely seen instances of this in horror stories before. A cross or a crucifix is turned upside down to denote the subversion of faith. A common household tool becomes a menacing weapon. Innocent beginnings can lead to terrifying places as these stories undermine the things we often take for granted. And even if you don’t engage such media, you can’t deny its popularity. Humans seem fascinated with tales of the unnatural.
While I think such fascination can become unhealthy, I believe some good may come from our interest in the unnatural. Consider, for example, the focus of much horror. In seemingly every case, horror turns our attention to the ways things can go wrong in the world. In fact, the most frightening stories are those that reflect reality, highlighting the actual horrors produced by this world. Granted, horror stories often sensationalize the real world inspirations, but the real world inspirations exist. Thus, although horror often deals in extremes and in caricatures, it operates on a deeply unsettling truth: our world is not all love and light. Darkness lies strong across the globe. Evil pervades our existence. Life is marked by the unnatural.
The unnatural aspects of horror, then, can act as reminders that the world is not the way it was created to be. These stories introduce unease into our sense of calm, shattering any illusions that this world is tame or safe. And when we see the darker aspects of the world, we begin to recognize our need for a hope that can overcome the world, a hope that can only be found in Christ.
When horror focuses our attention on the unnatural, we might do well to ask what the natural state of things might be. And the answer to that question may be found nicely in a Christian worldview. We have a story that deals with all of reality and a protagonist who doesn’t shy away from the darkness but instead confronts it and overcomes it. We have the only source of true and lasting hope that the darkness is not ultimate, that the unnatural state need not be permanent. And so we tell the story, the story that makes sense of other stories, even the darker ones. And we hope, even when face to face with the darkest of evils, for we know the one who has already overcome it all.
A dove is nesting near the stairs in the apartment building where I live.
Doves have long captured my attention. When I was a boy, doves would often nest in a hanging basket in the backyard of our house. From the back door, you could see them clearly, and you could hear them cooing during the day as you moved throughout the house. The doves always seemed so gentle, so peaceful, so patient as we watched them. I’m sure our presence made them nervous, but they remained fixed in spite of our movement.
As I passed the dove the other day, I noticed an egg next to her in the nest, a small sign of new life. At the close of a month filled with murder, mourning, and madness, a month when the world seemed to be coming undone all around us, the sight of this dove and her egg were a relief to my weary heart, a reminder that all is not lost. In a world steeped in death and darkness, new life still springs forth.
The scene reminded me of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “God’s Grandeur” (see the link to the poem below). Hopkins begins his poem with a captivating assertion: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” The grandeur of God goes largely unnoticed, however. Men do not heed him, do not seem to respect his good creation. The constant plodding of the generations has desensitized us, wearing on our souls as well as on the earth itself. Hopkins recognizes that a world of grandeur has grown almost dreary. It isn’t difficult to understand his point. Our world feels hopelessly lost. We feel hopelessly lost.
But Hopkins finds hope in this world as well. “And for all this,” he writes, “nature is never spent.” No sear, blear, smear, smudge, or smell can kill the freshness of the Lord’s world. Every nightfall is soon followed by a daybreak. The Lord remains at work, bringing life and light to our death and darkness.
Admittedly, the death and the dark seem unconquerable at times. When our news feeds are filled with injustice after injustice, when our homes are invaded by sickness and sorrow, and when our souls are shaken by chaos and storm, we can lose sight of “the dearest freshness deep down things.” But, like the dove, “the Holy Ghost over the bent World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.” God has not forsaken his creation. The promise of redemption still stands. “The light shines in the darkness,” John writes, “and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). In spite of all appearances to the contrary, the daybreak will come.
I cannot find the words to share my grief.
I sit instead in silence, and I mourn
Those dreams that were conceived but never born.
I pray for rest, for respite, for relief.
Remind me of the gospel’s grand motif:
Light for the lost and hope for the forlorn.
This all is grace, the flower and the thorn.
Lord, I believe, but help my unbelief.
I am a broken soul haunted by fears
With naught to offer but these feeble prayers
For hope and help to trust you through the tears.
With glory soon revealed, no pain compares,
So I cling now to you, the God who hears.
O Father, comfort me in these affairs.
This year seems to pose more challenges than any year in recent memory. Sure, every year carries tragedies, horrors, and unwelcome interruptions to the status quo, but 2020 seems to have hit the bad news quota for the year by April. And it’s still going strong.
Death’s shadow looms o’er us, but we fear not,
For with us walks the life, the light, of men,
Sov’reign o’er ev’ry plague, problem, and plot,
Perfect in power, faithful yet again.
You have been with us, will be with us still,
Though days be long and lonely in the land.
We feel the curse. So many are so ill.
God, this is not the future we had planned.
But you are e’er at work, and so we wait.
And we believe (but help our unbelief).
Let faith grow more than worry for our fate.
Let worship be our joy and our relief.
O Lord, you give. O Lord, you take away.
O let your name be blessed by us this day.
Now light has broken through the shroud of darkness.
The dark shall not prevail,
For he does not and will not ever fail.
His love holds fast in spite of our heart’s hardness.
He heard our hopeless wail
And cured our state with his own cross and nail.