As a widowed father of six children, one of which died in infancy and the eldest of which was paralyzed fighting for the Union in the Civil War, Henry Longfellow wrote the classic Christmas hymn, "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." It is easy enough to find the fuller story, so for my purposes it is sufficient to say that this song of hope was born out of great grief - to the extent that Longfellow feared being committed to an asylum.
Always Winter and Never Christmas
I never expected that grief would become part of my brand, but it would be inauthentic at this point for it to be otherwise. Over this past year, we lost more children while the hope of filling our home has continued to be unfulfilled. I'm still dragging through this Ph.D. that I had hoped to finish some time ago, and I work at a job for which I am thankful, but that does not fulfill my deepest vocational desires. Of course there are many who are struggling more than we are, but, even still, we are tired and often must fight for joy. Although Christmas approaches, it often feels like we're stuck in the witch-cursed Narnia of always winter and never Christmas.
It is commonly known that the Christmas season is one of great struggle for those who are grieving. The cozy aesthetics, pretty lights, images of families on Christmas morning, and the joyous carols all present an ideal of light and life that often stand in contrast to presently experienced realities.
I heard the bells on Christmas Day Their old, familiar carols play, and wild and sweet The words repeat Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And thought how, as the day had come, The belfries of all Christendom Had rolled along The unbroken song Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Till ringing, singing on its way, The world revolved from night to day, A voice, a chime, A chant sublime Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Where is the peace in child loss and infertility? Where is the good-will in isolation? Where is there room for a break in the song? While mainstream conversations pays lip service to suffering during the holidays, I find that, even in the church, true understanding is seriously lacking. Those who have never known unordinary loss naively proclaim merriment and cheer, which, lacking the wisdom of sorrow, become blasts of isolating pain.
Then from each black, accursed mouth The cannon thundered in the South, And with the sound The carols drowned Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
It was as if an earthquake rent The hearth-stones of a continent, And made forlorn The households born Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
It is no wonder that despair abounds this time of the year as carols of peace on earth reveal the fault lines that lay beneath us. The grace of Christmas is a condemning law apart from the faith that is able to recognize the abject humility from which true Christmas joy springs - the peasant child of Bethlehem destined for crucifixion who will one day renew the world.
The hope of Christmas is the hope of sorrow. It is the faith that our griefs unite us with the grief-bearing Christ who makes all things right. It is the hope of eucatastrophe. The hope of renewal does not eliminate present pains, but gives them meaning. Faith is not the absence of grief, but the hope that is manifested in grief.
If you are grieving this Christmas, the solution is not to suppress your feelings or ignore your losses. Faith is not empty positivity. Instead, press into your grief and, with the faithful Mary, behold the humble Christ who was born that the world might be reborn. Have faith that the disappointing manger in an insignificant town of an oppressed people holds the hope of the world. This is the true substance of Christmas joy.
And in despair I bowed my head; “There is no peace on earth,” I said; “For hate is strong, And mocks the song Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail, With peace on earth, good-will to men.”
Present realities may mock the joyous song of Christmas, but the song will one day bring all present realities into the perfect harmony of peace on earth and good-will to men.
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