Making Christmas Merry

December 4, 2013

“Isn’t really that merry anymore,” she said to me, her thin lips pulled tight under her dark glasses that she always wore, even inside. I had just wished her a “Merry Christmas” since I wouldn’t be back to this little congregation until the Sunday after Christmas.

“Isn’t really that merry anymore,” she said, “because my kids are all gone now, you see. My youngest died just a couple years ago. And I have no family. So Christmases aren’t that merry anymore.”

It was one of those moments when I didn’t know what to say. Maybe because it was such a hard truth or maybe because it was a sacred space. Or maybe both. But I was left for a moment without any words, scraping up whatever I could to find a response.

We eventually talked about church families and how they can help fill the void in the holidays. She agreed and we wished each other well until we saw one another again. But the conversation stuck to me all day. Her words were important. And even more, they were words that pierced into my heart. I haven’t lived Millie’s life. But I have experienced a sense of loss, isolation, and the confusion that comes from things going so horribly wrong.

The holidays make those experiences more significant. Around this time of year, I sense that a person is missing from our family. That one chair is empty. That the sounds of two children are noticeably absent. Of course, there are many families who experience that. Many who have lost a child to miscarriage, sickness, running away, or tragedy. I know of one family in Illinois who lost their elementary age daughter to a sudden illness a few years ago. And a colleague just supported his daughter who lost her unborn child this Fall, about halfway through her pregnancy. And another family whose son was killed years ago, but who still feel his absence acutely. Perhaps more at this time of year.

Each one of us, each of those people, and many more would understand Millie’s words about Christmas just not being very merry anymore. Not just those who have an empty place at the table, but those who never got to fill a table with a spouse and children. Those who don’t have the funds to decorate, put up a tree, buy gifts or even food for the little ones who live in their home. Those who sit beside a loved one dying, leaving them behind in a world that is less bright and welcoming as it was when their loved one was well.

I just had a short conversation with a dear woman who has struggled to find work after she was “downsized” out of her ministry position, and though she is very part-time at another church, is unable to find gainful employment and this little church she co-pastors may not make it either. Every couple weeks, I am in touch with another colleague or pastor who has left their church and is “out of call” as we Covenanters call it, and finding the wilderness of that unbearable. We get Millie. We get her words, “It’s really not that merry anymore.”

And I remember that for two dark Christmases those were my words. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t have much to say in response. Because I know those words too well. I know the crushing pain of what she means. I don’t remember much from Christmas 2008 and 2009, only bits and pieces: In 2008, I was the throes of pancreatitis, which (we found out later) was the only warning sign of the cancer that was quickly invading my body and the body of my little girl inside my womb. I vaguely remember praying desperately for God to help me stay upright and not doubled over in pain to preach the Christmas Eve service. I remember gripping the pulpit so tightly, my hands went numb. And that’s it. That’s all I remember of that Christmas. I don’t remember presents, or dinners, or carols, or anything else. And I think that is a mercy God has afforded me to forget the beginning of the most arduous journey I would take to date.

And in 2009, after we were aware of cancer, miscarriage, unexpected and unexplained infertility, debilitating disease, pay cuts, and threats of job losses (which would happen in 2010), I only remember bits of that Christmas. At the Christmas Eve service, I remember listening to a man complaining about how much it would cost to fix his hot tub while all the while worrying about the medical bills piled on the desk at home and how we would pay to replace tires that had grown so bald they couldn’t even climb a hill in ice. I remember the first Sunday worship after that Christmas and the person doing the welcome went on and on about how Christmas is a family time and how great it is to have the family home and how everyone should have a family… and my husband and I realized we were the only adults in the room who had no family and had at that time no hope of one.

That’s all I remember of those two Christmases. Except I also remember this: they were not merry.

“Isn’t really that merry anymore.”

Some people would chastise Millie for her words. I get that. I understand why someone would do that. It makes sense. But maybe, just maybe, Millie’s words unveil a deeper truth if we dare to look at them honestly. Maybe these words speak to a reality that is necessary.

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light, the prophet Isaiah calls to us at this time of year. And we like that. We love to think of the light coming. But there’s reality we sometimes fail to face. The darkness part. The reality of darkness- not simply as a present evil persona, but as brokenness, as hopelessness, as despair. Maybe in our quest to make the celebration merry we overlook this deep truth- the light was “light” because there was darkness. That’s the power of the light… the Light. That it can and does and will and may slice into the darkness. If there were no darkness- no despair, no brokenness, no hopelessness, no death, no need, nothing lost- then the light wouldn’t make such a difference.

This is the truth of this season. The Light came. He came. And he didn’t enter just a dimly lit, dusky-kind-of, sorta-still-light-out world. No, he entered darkness. He entered hopelessness. He entered the muck and misery of our world, our lives, our very souls. He stepped in the hell of our existence. The Light came to the darkness. And created a distinct and powerful contrast.

Maybe if we are honest about our darkness, it opens up the opportunity to see Jesus come in a much clearer way than we would if he chose to only enter into the light movements of our lives. Maybe Millie’s words, which scream in the hearts of more of us than we dare to admit, actually bring out the real meaning of Christmas. Maybe our quest shouldn’t be to make Christmas merry, but to allow Jesus to reach into the very cavernous darkness of our lives and bring something drastically different.

Maybe when we are able to acknowledge the dark, the pain, the loss, the loneliness, the despair, the struggle, we are better able to understand what the merriment of the season really is. That’s it’s more than “the Christmas Spirit.” It’s more than “choosing to smile when you want to cry.” We can be “merry” because those of us who have indeed lived and walked in the darkness of despair know very well what the Light looks like and what it means to have him appear. Maybe when we dare speak our reality, it creates Christmas for real.

And that’s really where the joy of this season lies, isn’t it? Everything around us is manufactured to create some sense of happiness- from the ads to the lights to the music to… yes, even to the Christmas Eve worship services at our churches (believe me, I have done a bunch of them and they are meaningful and wonderful and I think we all should still go to them, but they too are manufactured). But if you strip all that way, all the lights and tinsel and songs and gifts and family and memories… if you strip it all away, you still have this: The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.

And that’s not manufactured. That only comes from realizing the difference the Light can make. So, I encourage people (and you). Be honest this Christmas. Be honest about the darkness. Be honest about how it may not be merry. But also be open to seeing the Light. Because as far as I know, the Light continues to shine in the darkness, and though it may not always seem this way, the truth is that the darkness has not overcome him.

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