Three years after my husband died I decided to go to New York for a few days before Christmas. I wanted to see the sights, enjoy the lights, and smell the smells. Really, I was seeking. In my heart I was looking for some real, lasting relief from the persistent grief in my soul and spirit. After being there just a day I had a small epiphany. I realized that just because I was grieving, I wasn’t required to ignore the festivities. There are no seasonal “grief rules”. I could participate.
And so I mixed it up with the crowds and took in the noise, all the while watching and listening for sights and sounds that might awaken my sad spirit. I heard a solo trombone on the sidewalk playing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” I thought of the meaning of Emmanuel, “God is with us”. As I waited for a cab I heard another street musician playing a jaunty version of “Angels We Have Heard on High.” In a moment of quiet joy, I remembered - this is my favorite Christmas carol. I felt a smile on the inside and out.
The lights on Fifth Avenue seemed to shout in my direction, “It’s not too late; don’t miss it!” So I allowed my resistance to all things commercial to thaw a bit and joined with others in the hustle and bustle of a city on the verge of all-out celebration.
I was humbled by a man on the street with only one foot who silently asked for help. He seemed genuinely surprised and grateful when I put a bill in his empty cup. The man’s dog was with him. The mangy-looking animal was surely his faithful companion and steady guide. Likely, too, the dog was a source of physical and emotional warmth for this quiet homeless man. It struck me that the man had a friend. On that day, in that place, he was less alone than I was.
Another man I’ve observed over the years sleeps in the side doorway of a beautiful Park Avenue church. He was nowhere to be seen, yet his neatly packed bundle of worldly possessions stood on the sidewalk in testimony to his existence. I tucked a bill inside his bedroll and hoped he would find it. I prayed he would feel someone cared about him - individually and personally - as he lay on the hard stone again that night in need of warmth and protection from the freezing cold. I though of a manger and God’s great gift of love.
At church on Sunday, the message was about awakening. After my small experiences on the streets of New York I found I was at last again awake to the meaning and joy of Christmas. I’d felt so dead inside every Christmas since the death of my husband. As the smell of incense wafted through the air, the miracle of Emmanuel – God’s love for us all - saturated my spirit with peace and renewed hope.
This is what I longed for, this is what I needed to live through another holiday season and be better for all my seeking. There are no sidelines to the experience of Christmas. God invites us to participate - to join hands and hearts with both strangers and those we love and now grieve. Together we listen, we hear the angels sing.
“…and they shall name him Emmanuel” which means, “God is with us”.
Matthew 1:23 NRSV
Keep me this day, O God, in the spirit of Emmanuel. Amen