I cried a lot this Christmas.
This Christmas—like this year—has been beautiful in so many ways. But it’s also been hard. Hard as iron, at times. Hard in a way no one can prepare you for.
Back in the fall, my little book club re-read an old favorite, Anne’s House of Dreams. I love all of the Anne books, but as a wife, that one has become my very favorite. Nevertheless, it had been years since any of us had revisited that story, and the most poignant element of all to us (without giving away too much, I hope!) was that Anne wasn’t able to connect in real friendship with her intriguing but emotionally distant neighbor, Leslie, until she herself had suffered greatly. It wasn’t until Anne had walked the valley of the shadow that the hurting Leslie was able to trust her, not only with her sorrow, but with her joy as well.
“Why did no one tell us how hard life was?” I asked, looking around the circle of trusted friends.
“We wouldn’t have believed them,” one of them replied. “You have to learn it for yourself.”
She’s right. Life is beautiful, full of dreams and ideals and joys that threaten to make your heart pound clean out of you. But—as Anne learned, as we’re all learning in our own ways—life is hard.
And when the hardness of life invades the tenderness of Christmas, well, then, that’s very hard, indeed.
You have all been so kind with your notes and comments during Advent and Christmastide, and while I really feel I have nothing whatever worthwhile to say, I also feel that I owe it to you, dear readers, to slip in here and let you know I’m still around. To let you know that I appreciate you and your words and the fact that you come back here to see if I’ve posted anything new. That’s really so astonishing to me that after ten years (!) of writing in this space I still can’t get my mind around it. But I’m thankful—thankful for you; thankful that we’ve been able to connect here. It’s precious to me.
This Christmas I had the blessing of leaning deep into the longing and waiting of Advent. Advent is, should be, a season of Longing, of pressing into the sadness that all is not as it should be; that hopes remain unfulfilled and prayers remain unanswered; that another year on this broken old earth finds it more broken than ever.
Early in December, I was feeling rather self-conscious about my sadness—even though it’s entirely justified: my father is terminally ill, and every day holds a fresh heartbreak. I can hardly write about it here, the pain is too raw, too private, though I’ve filled reams of paper journals over the past few months.
But I felt the Lord calling me to honor that sadness. To make myself even more at home with the unresolved tension of loss and grief and hope deferred. To welcome my nearly unbearable longing as a friend and guide that would draw my heart towards an irresistible, undeniable Light.
For the truth is, even if God did answer all my prayers and give me everything I’ve asked Him for, the longing would still be there—because, like all the generations before me, it’s Jesus I’m longing for.
What gift, then, to have such a poignant image of that reality to stab my soul awake this Advent season. How precious to be caught up into that great Longing for the Savior’s appearing that’s broken the hearts of the faithful with sorrow and joy for centuries. The joy is real—but the sorrow is inseparable from it.
Even so, come Lord Jesus!
The shadow cast by Daddy’s illness leant a somber air to our traditions and observances and beloved rituals this year. Some things had to be laid aside by necessity amidst all the tangle of responsibility and uncertainty and care. And some things, in spite of all, we held to more firmly than ever. I told Philip that if there was one thing I wanted this Christmas, it was to have my home stuffed to capacity with people I love. I wanted to cook for them and care for them; create beauty for them; celebrate with them the glorious reality that no amount of earthly sadness can ever undo: namely, that He came, He’s coming again, and every tear will be wiped away.
I wanted to send people to bed in firelit rooms with steaming mugs of peppermint tea. I wanted that bright ring of children’s faces around my table on Christmas Eve—the nieces and nephews and children of friends with whom we’ve celebrated for years. I wanted noisemakers and paper hats on Christmas Day, and silly cracker mottoes and singing. I wanted to affirm that all this hoopla really matters. It seemed so discordant with grief—but after the waiting, the silence, the darkened way of Advent, I wanted to celebrate.
And we did. I had my wish—the Lord honored my desire. I made beds; I set tables; I crammed the freezer with casseroles and cookies. Philip laid the fires and helped me stuff dozens of Christmas crackers. In between trips to the nursing home (in which Bonnie Blue was always a most eager participant!) we listened to favorite records and watched a few favorite movies and read our Advent prayers.
And I cried. A lot.
And that’s okay. I’m learning to be okay with that. I’m learning in a way I never have before that life is HARD.
But it’s also good, as God is good. On Christmas night, the tears that burned my eyes had their source in joy. We were all gathered in the parlor, Philip and me and our houseguests and the darling family of eight and their lovely friend we’d invited to spend Christmas with us, singing everything from “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” (which, I admit, I had to sight-read, as I had no idea how it even went!) to “Away in a Manger”. The hymnals were pulled from their bottom shelf on the bookcase and passed around and requests were taken. It was one of those rare moments in life when you knew how good it all was—knew it down to the marrow of your soul. But it was during “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” that my cup (and nearly my eyes) overflowed: its bright triumph has always been especially dear to me, but the words almost seemed to catch fire and light up the room as we belted them out together. And in the midst of it all, our littlest guest, a three year-old lass in a party frock with bare feet, marched around the room, tooting the horn from her Christmas cracker with ear-splitting abandon, almost in time to the music. Such unadulterated joy it nearly broke my heart.
There’s heartache awaiting that little one as sure as it’s come to the rest of us. It’s called being human and alive on this dear old hurting earth of ours. But, being the smallest present, she represented something in our midst: something fresh and pure and utterly, utterly REAL. So lately come from God herself, she was the closest of all of us to the mystery we were celebrating. Whether she could ever comprehend it or not, her innocent antics woke an elemental gladness in me that the darkness absolutely cannot extinguish. That Light is just too faithful.
Philip said I was crazy when he saw me putting those horns in the childrens’ crackers. But, in a way, they made my Christmas.
After the 25th, I’ve retreated (as much as I can right now) into the rest and the wonder of these blessed 12 Days. And here, it’s the 10th one already. It’s a deliciously misty and gloomy one, just right for a quiet afternoon by the fire, keeping and pondering what this holiday has meant. My Christmas tree gleams bravely against the darkening afternoon, and in another moment here, I’ll light my Advent wreath (now graced with red candles for Christmastide). I don’t feel that I’ve kept Christmas this year, so much as it’s kept me—which is a very beautiful thing. The older we get, the more loss we have under our belts, the more complicated our tenderest times become. But as Sarah Bessey so wisely and bravely said in this breathtaking essay,
“The joy born out of suffering and longing is more beautiful for its very complexity.”
We greeted the New Year a few days ago, not as we’d planned, but with tears and question marks. I told Philip I was a little afraid to open the door to 2015—I couldn’t be sure it wouldn’t break my heart even more thoroughly than 2014 had.
But then I remembered: sorrow’s not the only thing that breaks our hearts.
Sorrow remains for a night—but joy comes in the morning.
I felt God’s challenge stirring in my tired, battered heart: the one—the only—thing He’s asking of me in the face of so many unknowns: dare to believe He loves me as much as He says He does. Dare to take the joy He’s holding out to me.
Dare to believe that JOY really is my word for this New Year.
Happy New Year, dear ones. My prayer for you all on this 10th Day of Christmas is that for you and all who are dear to you, the light breaks and the shadows flee.