Christmas is my favorite holiday, but as I get older, I find myself increasingly aware of the complicated emotions that it inspires in so many. So on this shortest day of the year, I thought I’d reprise a piece I wrote at the same time two years ago. Grace and peace to you all, however this Christmas season finds you.
I’m not entirely sure what took me out this night, the longest of the year, to attend “A Service of Comfort, Hope, and Healing” at my father-in-law’s church in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
By way of explanation, I mumbled something to my wife about Stacey and GW. It’s been months now since the deaths of those close friends, but grief has a way of reasserting itself unexpectedly during the holidays. I could stand to be comforted in such moments.
Unlike many of those gathered, I’m not in need of physical healing. But I could certainly use a dose of hope at a moment when so much about our nation and world tempts me to despair.
Or maybe it was just one of those Pietist instincts reasserting itself: that Christians are better together than apart.
Whatever brought me to Nazareth Lutheran, I’m glad I took part in my first “Blue Christmas” service.
Blue is the color of sadness, an emotion that is too often suppressed in this season of relentless good cheer. So it’s appropriate that our first reading came from the saddest book in the Bible: “The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall! My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me” (Lamentations 3:19). Left unsaid were the preceding verses, in which the author identifies the source of his affliction and homelessness as none other than God himself:
I am one who has seen affliction
under the rod of God’s wrath;
he has driven and brought me
into darkness without any light;
against me alone he turns his hand,
again and again, all day long….
He has made my teeth grind on gravel,
and made me cower in ashes;
my soul is bereft of peace;
I have forgotten what happiness is;
so I say, “Gone is my glory,
and all that I had hoped for from the Lord.” (3:1-3, 16-18)
Not just at a time of Happy Holidays, these are uncomfortable words. Rarely heard by Christian ears, they present God at his most unknowable.
But Christmas brings us God at his most knowable: God with us.
“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,” continued our text, “his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (3:22-23). I don’t think of Lamentations as a prophetic text, but surely Jesus incarnates the unceasing love, unending mercy, and great faithfulness of the author’s God.
(“If you know me, you will know my Father also,” Jesus told his disciples, concluding the gospel text that Lutherans read today for the feast of Christianity’s most famous doubter.)
Bookending those memorable lines of poetry are two more featuring a word that is most meaningful as it emerges from lament: “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope… ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him.'”
Not just sadness, therefore, “blue Christmas” also brings to mind the Christian color of hope — the hue of sky and ocean, the two spaces in a finite Creation vast enough to hint at the boundlessness of an infinite Creator who “will wipe every tear from their eyes” and make “all things new” (Rev 21:4,5).
So as the waiting of Advent begins to stretch our patience thin, let me wish you a blue Christmas. Whatever sadness you feel you must hide behind a smile or overcome on your own, may you find the God of love, mercy, and faithfulness renewing your hope. May you encounter again the Christ to whom we prayed with the words of Marty Haugen’s hymn:
Healer of our ev’ry ill,
light of each tomorrow,
give us peace beyond our fear,
and hope beyond our sorrow.