Advent is the period in the Christian calendar that culminates in the celebration of the birth of Christ on the day we call Christmas. Whatever your understanding or expectation of Christmas, Advent is a time to look within, be silent, and listen for the voice of God, especially for those who grieve. During this season of waiting, we reflect, meditate, and prepare our heart to experience the love of God alive and present to us in the world in the person of Jesus, the Savior sent to redeem humankind.
In a Christmas sermon from 1928, Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed, "The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come."
When we grieve at Christmas, the inmost longing of our heart is for a deep personal experience of the living Christ. Christmas may come to us in a moment of quiet prayer, or in a twinkling instant in which we feel our soul at one with God and know without doubt or question that we stand in the presence of Christ, the newborn king.
For many, this time of year evokes memories. We remember loving, joyful celebrations of family gathered together. We remember those surprise announcements and unexpected revelations timed for maximum effect at Christmas. We remember as well bygone seasons that recall the pain of disappointment, the heartache of sadness, and the darkness of grief. Whatever experiences of Christmas we recall in our heart, they leave a lasting imprint on our soul and spirit.
More often than not, our memories are colored by our own revisionism. We tend to magnify the best and discount what went wrong. Or maybe we magnify the worst and discount what went right. The idealized image in our head of what family should look like and feel like, especially at Christmas does not always match up to the reality of our everyday life.
Think for a moment about the illustrations and paintings of Norman Rockwell. His pictures draw us into an image of a perfect holiday celebration. We see a multi-generational, nuclear family sitting around a dinner table or around a Christmas tree. Those in the family appear to be loving and joyful. They seem to like each other.
Whether biological, blended, or chosen, each family has its own dynamic. In many families, dysfunction, addictions, in-laws, out-laws, and the step-everyones can make the holidays at best a challenge, and at worst a disaster. If we layer on the stress of birthdays or anniversaries that coincide with the celebration of Christmas, the sadness of December remembrance days, and the strain of complicated relationships, the outcome can be a holiday season that is mentally, spiritually, and emotionally exhausting.
At this moment in history when the world seems overwhelmed by challenges that defy every promise of hope and peace, our impulse may be to avoid the painful emotions and memories of Advent and Christmas. However we approach the season, we long for the eternal qualities of God that seem most elusive in the troubled world in which we live—light, comfort, love, and joy. For some, Christmas may be an exuberant experience of light, for those who grieve it may be an experience of comfort, for those who are lonely it may be an experience of love, for those who feel empty it may be an experience of joy.
These gifts of God’s grace cannot be bought, borrowed, or appropriated from another person, whether that person is alive and well, or is now among those we name as the saints of our life. Whether we are surrounded by family, or find ourself alone in the world, we must make our way to the manger in the strength of our own spiritual conviction and understanding of Christ.
The question, then, is how do we experience God’s gifts of light, comfort, love, and joy at Christmas, especially when we grieve? Sometimes we find these gifts at the back door of our heart, wrapped in nothing more and nothing less than our need to seek and find the grace light of God’s love present to us in Christ.
- Find the light in the beauty of meditation, prayer, and thanksgiving.
- Find the light in moments of quiet communion with the abiding spiritual presence of the one you have loved and now grieve.
- Find the light in a candle that shines in memory of your loved one.
- Find the light in gratitude for the one whose light lives on forever.
- Find the light in hope for the future.
In Christ, we behold the light of God’s infinite, eternal, limitless grace. Grace light is the pure gift of God’s great love for us all.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.