Two days after Christmas, I heard from one of my old friends that they had lost someone close to them that very day. When someone’s grief is so raw and poignant, there really isn’t anything you can say. They just want to feel, to fight and to scream no, this shouldn’t be how it is! Our hearts break for them and all the while we feel guilty because we feel uncomfortable because when someone is grieving that hurt reminds us of our own grief and our own mortality, topics we would rather run away from if we could. Being with someone in their grieving is not about making it better or making it go away but holding a fraction of the burden they feel in our hearts and those kinds of burdens don’t ever really go away. Just like grief is not something we get over it is a part of living and dying in this world, even two days after Christmas.
We would very much like there to be a rule that that kind of hurt couldn’t happen on the holidays, but it does and often. I looked out my window while I listened and saw a plastic elf decoration laying all sad in the mud across the street and thought that, that kind of Christmas is going to be of no help to my friend at all. Because when we grieve there are no quick fixes and no getting over it. There are no snowmen that come back next year or reindeer that learn how to fly. If that was what Christmas has been about, muddy plastic elves, reindeer and snowmen, then no, Christmas is no help when someone loses someone they love. But that’s not what this Christmas that we just celebrated was about at all.
This is one of the Christmas stories that is rarely told, the prophecy from Jeremiah 31.
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”
Today, on the 28th of December every year in the church’s liturgical calendar, is the commemoration of the Holy Innocents. All of the male babies, just a few years old in Bethlehem, who were slaughtered by the paranoid and crazed King Herod trying to kill Jesus who was born King of the Jews. The church remembers their deaths at the hands of a evil man, who in all of His anger and rage, died just the same, his throne to go to someone else and his only deed truly remembered in history is killing children. This is the Christmas story that we don’t always tell, it is too real, too much like life today, not a cartoon or hallmark Christmas story.
But if we were a little more honest about the whole of the Christmas story and take the story away from sterilized hallmark renditions of it, the whole of the Christmas story is placed squarely within real life. A poor working class family. Taxes to pay that are a heavy burden on the people. Government that doesn’t care if your nine months pregnant, you still have to register (forcing you to take your pregnant wife on a journey on a donkey!) No room in the inn and no help when help is needed. War and rumors of war. Joseph and Mary with the baby fleeing for their lives as refugees in a foreign country. Joseph just trying to make ends meat to support his family. People who don’t think twice about hurting others if it benefits themselves. This is the Christmas story that Mary and Joseph lived through.
In the middle of all that was Jesus. We cannot stress enough that Jesus came into our real life. Jesus’ birth was not a sanitized version of our lives with cartoon characters and really cleans stables where Jesus was supposed to be born. Jesus was born in the world where Rachel weeps for her children because of an evil man and where my friend weeps for his lost loved one two days after Christmas. The real Christmas, the Christmas of Jesus, was born for our tears…
and to give us hope in the redemption that God is accomplishing in His world and in our lives. This does not mean that Christians do not grieve or should not grieve. The prophecy of Jeremiah clearly tells us that their grief was inconsolable. Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.” Christians grieve and will live with grief, with one intensity or another throughout life. Grief is the norm not the exception in our life. Instead, God has come into our grief and given to us hope. Hope that is found first in Jesus, Jesus who was born into our real world of grief, died in our world of grief, but was raised from the dead, still in our real world of grief, to take us to be with Him where God and all the dead in Christ are as well. If any of this had happened outside of our real life, what kind of hope would that be? It would be a dream and a wish concocted in our heads, but Jesus was born into our world, lived, died and rose in our world, to point us to the ways and places God is and will make all things new. Hope that is not seen yet but one day will be known.
I wondered about this often, how we can hold onto a hope that we cannot see. How can we interact with it, live for it, move within it? How does such a thing work? I came across this quote from a Christian philosopher; he said “I’ve never seen my wife.” I thought, he’s right. I’ve seen her make coffee in the morning, I’ve seen her arms hug me, I’ve gazed into my wife’s eyes, but I’ve never seen my wife. That which is really my wife, her consciousness, her spirit, her soul, I’ve never seen before, they are invisible, but she still exists.
This is true of us. If a person loses an arm or a leg, we would never ever say they are not them without those appendages. They may be different, they may have to live differently, they are hurt but they are still them. The invisible essence of what makes the person who they are is not located in an arm or a leg. The same with a transplant of a heart or a liver, a person is not their liver. Even the brain, the amazing organic computer that it is, where we can pinpoint an area that lights up when we experience pain or hurt or sadness, but I am still not my brain. My brain and my spirit relate and correlate to each other, if my brain is too badly damaged I don’t have access to my faculties but I am still me. Just as when someone has cancer, that cancer is part of their cells mutating, if all I was, was my body, then that cancer would be me as well. But I am not cancer or any of the diseases that rack our bodies, they affect us but they are not who we are; we know this is true, our invisible spirit is as much a reality as our bodies are, even though we don’t see them this side of heaven.
The hope that we are given in Jesus, is a hope that is unseen but is still very much there. Just like my spirit interacts with my body, so we can interact with that invisible hope we have in Jesus. In faith we can still cling to that hope in our deepest grief, we can walk in that hope and let it guide our choices, we can look to that hope and follow Jesus as he leads us, we can pray in that hope, read of that hope and share that hope with those whose loads of grief we bear.
Just because hope is unseen does not mean it’s not real. But, maybe more importantly, even though hope is unseen, we ca still interact with and live within it in our real everyday, grief filled lives. This is the Christmas hope, when the time is right I will share with my friend, but until then I will do my best to carry a fraction of his burden in my heart, doing this in that unseen hope in Jesus born on Christmas day.