Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted (Matthew 5:4).
If you find it difficult to get in the spirit this Christmas, I have a secret to tell, secret only because telling it too loudly might rain on somebody’s Christmas parade. Christmas is not about happiness. It is about joy.
And there is a difference. Happiness is about increasing pleasure or decreasing pain – a very good thing. But joy runs deeper, emerging in spite of little pleasure or much pain. Joy is the stuff that lasts.
Moreover, I will pass on to you very concrete, specific ways to bring out the joy of this season in your heart, especially if your heart hurts. These approaches come more from scripture – the same source as the original Christmas story – than from shopping therapy or self-help. They are rooted in reality, not wishful fantasies.
First, name your pain and own it. The pain of grief touches your life right now, and against the background of jingly, twinkly, giggly, green and red Christmas stuff, it looks stark and gray. You may feel embarrassed that you cannot hide it under a cloak or snowdrift. Or you may feel heartsick that you do hide it so successfully.
In bereavement or estrangement, how do you express the pain when nobody can replace the one lost, nobody can bear witness to the memories of the love you once shared like you can? If grief makes you feel crazy, you may talk to therapists like me. But I assure you the decent ones will tell you to dismiss the cruel myth that your unhappiness means there is something wrong with you. Your searching for the beloved, your overwhelmed feelings, and your anger, sadness, and bargaining with God only mean you’re human, not a clinical case.
Happiness is about happenstance, good luck, getting the goodies, avoiding the pain, and overlooking the inevitability of death. Be thankful when it comes your way. Receive and savor it, but do not get addicted to it because while it may help you avoid pain, it will then require you to avoid joy as well.
For happiness depends on escape from reality, while joy takes root in the reality’s soil. Nothing digs into that soil and plants seeds of joy like grief. Nothing waters and tends to pain and the rooting and flourishing of joy like the telling of your story and finding out that it is a story told first and last by God.
Yes, you cannot fully convey your pain to another, but you can tell your story. You might even start the telling by yourself in a journal and carry it over to a friend, pastor, or counselor.
You need the validation of a listening ear, God knows, because at the very least God gives you that when you pray. Pray your story even if you do not want to. Even if you are angry at God or so flummoxed that you can barely speak or find the words, come before God with your silence if that’s all you’ve got at the moment. You may be surprised at how rich God’s silent answer grows when you endure the silence with just a modicum of faithful expectancy.
You also need to hear yourself tell the story. Loss shatters our stories, but the telling reconstructs them and uncovers their hidden meaning that we missed back in the living and loving years. When you put your story ever so slowly back together, hidden hands put you back together. Those hands are not yours.
Those are the hands that made you, fearfully and wonderfully, the hands of the God from whom you cannot flee even to the outer reaches, the hands of one who watches you lovingly, of one to whom even darkness is as light (see Psalm 139). And as you tell your story of love and loss to your friend, yourself, and your God, you will hear what you’re saying and more. You will hear God’s story of your life emerging as you search for the right words or discover feelings you did not know you had.
For us Christians, the Christmas story is a turning point in the story of human suffering and loss. To an occupied nation, a child is born. In a smelly stable. In the cold of night. To a teenaged mother and a father who trusts her word and his dreams that this pregnancy that had nothing to do with him is somehow sacred, worth staking his life on. Ancient promises of which many long since despaired will be fulfilled in this gurgling, puffy-eyed, wet one reaching for Mary’s breast while rude shepherds, drunk on God-knows-what run breathless their way, swearing they saw angels.
That’s not happiness. That’s joy. Right there in the middle of the pain to a people numb for generations over traumatic losses and forgotten hopes. You only get there by riding your story through the pain, not around it, and you know you arrived when you find that it was not your story but that baby’s story you were telling all along, unawares.
This post consists of selected passages from a Blue Eucharist sermon I preached at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Rome, Georgia on December 14, 2017. If you want to receive the full text, request it through the Contact Me page.