This time three years ago, I would drive the short distance from my childhood home to the nursing home where my mother was dying with one song playing over and over in the car: “There’s Still My Joy” by the Indigo Girls.
It was the perfect music for those bewildering weeks in December and early January when my mother, at age 71, succumbed to a rapidly spreading cancer.
As December progressed, we lit another candle in the Advent wreath each Sunday, symbolizing the light of Christ coming into the world to shatter the darkness. And as December progressed, I watched my mother’s light be just as swiftly extinguished week after week, and darkness threatened to engulf me.
Until I experienced that terrible grief, I never quite realized just how many people are suffering at the holidays — how painful it all can be. Christmas is such a powerful reminder of losses of the past, of those we loved who are no longer.
It’s also a reminder of the people who are with us right now for what will likely be their last Christmas on earth. Last week I went caroling with friends from my husband’s church, mostly to homes where someone is in hospice. One house we visited was for a woman in her early thirties who is dying of cancer, leaving behind three tiny children. They weren’t even sure she would make it until Christmas Day. I’m glad I didn’t know the situation until after we had already caroled there, because I don’t think I could have made it through the music without blubbering.
But holy tears are a part of Christmas, our grief a hint of the “now and the not yet” that Christians are called to live in. We are in this world, invested in relationships and learning to love one another. But we are not of this world; it is not the end, even when a piece of us is shredded by the loss of another. They are still a part of us, among the great cloud of witnesses.
When the angel told Mary to “fear not,” I don’t think it was only because angels look terrifying when they show up in your bedroom or even because her life was going to change irrevocably by the birth of her son. I think it was also because her life would be forever changed by his death many years later. Death and birth are intertwined right from the beginning in the holy story. It was not an accident that one of Jesus’ baby shower presents was myrrh, which was used to embalm the dead.
“Fear not” was wise counsel for Mary, and it remains wise counsel for us. A blue Christmas can be a reminder of the bittersweet transience of life, each empty place at the table an expression of our full, full hearts.
There’s still our joy.
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