In the first chapter of Luke we read, “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
We need God’s light and guidance on our journey of grief as we make our way through the vast forest of spiritual and emotional pain. At Christmas, our thoughts and feelings are especially attuned both to the absence and to the presence of the one we love and grieve.
If you’ve ever lived in a mountainous part of the country or seen the vast, ancient forests of Europe or other parts of the world, you probably have an idea of what it means to be in the woods. I lived for several years in the Black Forest area of Germany and that’s exactly what it looks like—both up close and from a distance—it’s black and dark, an illusion created by the deep lush green of its centuries-old trees. Most are fir trees, Tannenbaums, the same tree extolled in the seasonal song “O Christmas Tree”.
As the custom of the Christmas tree developed in the 19th century, “O Tannenbaum” was adopted as a Christmas carol. The song speaks of the ever-green quality of the fir as a symbol of constancy and faithfulness. When we reflect on the spiritual imagery represented by the Christmas tree, we’re reminded of God’s faithfulness to us, especially as we grieve, “Know therefore that the Lord your God is God; He is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands” (Deuteronomy 7:9 NIV).
As we go farther into the woods of our grief, we feel especially lost without our loved one. We easily imagine that we are the only one who’s ever been down this precarious path of grief. We can’t see the grooves and ruts made by those who through the ages have gone before us. Because we feel isolated and alone in our grief, we miss the signposts of hope and direction along the way. Yet eternity teaches us that the path we’re on is long and wide, a road well-traveled by all who have ever grieved. On our journey, we discern that grief is as timeless and ageless as each tree in the forest and that above all else, God is faithful.
Although I’m not much of a hiker, I ventured into the Black Forest a few times and found that under the majestic beauty of the trees, the undergrowth was dense and rough, which made for very slow going. In part, this was because I didn’t have the right shoes—I simply wasn’t prepared for the walk. If you think about it, we cannot prepare in life for the experience of grief. When we grieve, we are unready for the journey and get tripped up in ways we could never have imagined.
On my journey, what I found was that I had to look down and focus on every step, and because I was so unsure in my footing, I missed the experience of light shimmering through the trees. I missed the cool pleasure of the woods and the enjoyment of the forest because of all the pesky trees.
When we grieve we can scarcely see, much less appreciate how vast the forest really is. We’re in the thick of it and all we see is the next tree and then the next. The reason we can’t see what’s around us is that we’re desperately holding on to each tree for dear life. If you could name the tree you’re clinging to at this very moment, what would you call it? Anger? Fear? Loneliness? Worry? Disappointment? Despair?
As we look for the light of God’s comfort at Christmas, the majesty of ancient trees can inspire within us the same awe and wonder expressed so powerfully by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephesians, “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”
Our journey seems difficult because there is so little light as we grope our way through the darkness of grief. Yet we see encouragement in each beautiful glint of light that filters through the trees. The Apostle Paul reminds us that we are to “Live as children of light.” And so we walk on.
As we move from tree to tree through our own deep forest of grief, slowly we move forward. We feel hopeful as we see the light at the end of our grief that points toward spiritual safety and home.
Isaiah assures us that we will be restored and live again in great light, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined.”
What we miss in the dark forest of our grief is the certainty that light is there all along, the light of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness, the light that “guides our feet in the way of peace.” Be assured that God’s eternal, never-changing light shines over us and all around us through the darkness of our grief. God waits only for us to look up with hope and see the brilliant light that beckons us forward into the clearing of renewed life and joy. When at last we abandon the darkness and emerge from the forest, tried and tested by the journey through grief, we stand again in the full sunlight of God’s presence and wondrous grace.
As the dawn from on high breaks upon your life this at this Christmas time, may you find hope and peace in the bright light of God’s comfort to you and God’s love for you.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.