A meditation given December 21, 2020.
Blue Christmas services are gaining popularity this year, as the world collectively grieves so very much. Yet for some of us, this service has always been sacred. Much like Good Friday services, it’s often one of the smaller ones, a more intimate one, one for those well acquainted with wilderness and grief. It has often been for the ones who can spot grief and resiliency in the eyes of strangers even from 6 feet away.
Blue Christmas/Longest Night services are some of my favorites to preach because it’s an opportunity to be even more honest about the finite hot messes into which Jesus was very intentionally born.
So, if this is your first Blue Christmas/Longest Night observance, a word of warning: this won’t magically take away your pain or make you feel better. In fact, it’s the opposite. This service invites you to name your pain and sit with it. It’s a chance to attempt to articulate the unimaginable. It’s a chance to be honest about feeling weary or fearful, sad or anxious. It’s a service about being raw. And the tangible and hopeful part is the palpable reminder that you are not alone. This year, more than ever, we are corporately exhausted as we coast into Mary’s labor & delivery room on fumes. We are not alone. If ever there was a time to remind each other that all these messes are exactly why God chooses to be with us as one of us, it’s now.
A few weeks before Thanksgiving I started hearing conversations about how folks could not imagine having a small gathering, or not traveling, or not being together with their favorites. They could not imagine cooking only for a few or not having their grandmother’s signature dish. They couldn’t imagine not having a house full of delightful chaos. As a hospital chaplain, I thought, “Thank you for not gathering in a pandemic because your lives are worth it, and the healthcare system cannot withstand everyone traveling.” As a divorced only child with one living parent, I thought, “Gosh, our lives are so different, but you’re gonna be alright.”
I’ve dreamed of a large family for as long as I can remember since both my parents were only children, too. My mom died a year before my former spouse and I separated. Thus, within 15 months my immediate family gatherings went from four to two. Two may not seem like a lot to those of you with large families, but for small families, a 50% decrease in table guests is a massive change. While death and divorce are very different types of grief, empty place settings are empty place settings just the same. And it takes time to recalibrate meals and traditions, menus and new memories with empty chairs.
During the week of Thanksgiving I started to ask folks if they’d like ideas of how to cope with their smaller holiday. I offered things I’ve learned are comforting and ways to feel connected with those still alive, as well as ways to remember those who have died. I shared how I now cook something-anything-late Wednesday night before Thanksgiving so the house doesn’t smell like a normal day when I wake up Thanksgiving morning. I shared how I use the fancy china for everything because life is too short not to use the fancy china. I shared how I intentionally text people to tell them I’m thankful for them. It’s true, and also serves as a reminder to myself that while I may wake up alone, I am not actually alone or lacking in love in the world.
I’ve heard many of the same conversations about Christmas as well. So, on this Longest Night of 2020, I encourage you to reach out to the professional grievers in your life and ask their ideas:
Ask what brings them joy when the house isn’t full of voices and side dishes.
Ask what movies and songs are comforting during heartbreak.
Ask what recipe they used that time that ate mac & cheese right out of the pan beside the manger because it was all they could manage.
Ask how they’ve learned to keep memories and traditions alive in new ways.
The professional grievers who were well-loved have heaps of extra love to share, so please ask us. We will all have different answers, but I’m guessing the overall message will be the same: “You will need to find somewhere cozy to nap by the manager, but we promise you will survive whatever shattered your soul.”
And on behalf of professional grievers, I ask that you not forget our answers next year. For your empty chairs and quiet house may only be temporary, and I sincerely hope that’s the case for you and your family. Yet it’s especially important to remember how this year feels, even with temporary grief and temporarily empty tables. Because next year some will still be wrapping their head around the sting of death instead of wrapping gifts for their favorite person. It’s important to remember how much you feel you need the birth of God right now. Remember the desperation of this year next December when healthcare and essential workers are burned out or have PTSD. Remember how much you miss your people when it seems easier to be stubborn or hold a grudge than risk reconciliation. Remember the rage that led you to book studies, marches, and voting booths, and let it fuel your heart as you shepherd others in the valleys of racism. Remember.
No matter who or what you’re grieving this longest night, I hope you go outside to witness the wonder of the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn for the first time in centuries. And as you gaze up at the longest night sky, I hope you see there is a Christmas star to guide you to the Christ Child. Whether or not you even know what you’re feeling, there is Christmas star to guide you to the Wonderful Counselor. No matter what response the world offers to your pain, there is a Christmas star to guide you to the Prince of Peace. No matter how very finite you feel, there is a Christmas star to guide you to the Word Made Flesh.
Emmanuel, God with us, will be born yet again out of our Parent’s abundant, boundless love for us. God will be born again to teach us once more what love is all about and to remind our souls of their worth.
So do not rush through this sacred liminal space of labor pains while we await the birth of love.
Name the hot messes and dumpster fires.
Weep with those refusing to be consoled.
Give thanks with each inhale on behalf of those whose breath was taken away.
Give thanks with each exhale that death will never have the final word.
Give thanks for the image of Divine in the mirror.
Give thanks for the image of the Divine in your neighbor.
And pay attention to the night skies. The stars. The mystery. The wonder. The quiet. The hope. The expectation. The peace. Remember to pay attention. Amen.