Don’t Let the Darkness of Grief Eclipse the Light of Christmas

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Yesterday when my wife and I went for our afternoon walk, it seemed to be getting dark a little earlier than the day before.  And today will be even darker.  And it should be, because today is the darkest day of the year.

For those of us who live in the northern hemisphere, the shortest day of the year, the Winter Solstice, usually occurs on Dec. 21. The solstice, which literally means, “sun stood still,” officially marks the beginning of winter.

More notably, with the shortest day also comes the longest period of darkness. The Earth’s axial tilt is at its furthest point from the sun, allowing the least amount of daylight to reach the earth.

While it may be merely coincidental that the darkest day arrives just prior to our customary celebration of Christmas, from my experience as a pastor, I am aware that holidays can be dark days emotionally for many of us.

While there are a variety of events, experiences and emotions that cast dark shadows over our lives, some even bleak enough to obscure the joy of Christmas, a prominent culprit is grief.

Grief comes in many shapes and sizes.  We grieve over the death of friends and loved ones. We grieve over disintegration of a marriage. We grieve over an unexpected diagnosis. We grieve over friction within the family. We grieve over the loss of a job. We grieve over tragic events around the globe. At times, we may even grieve over our diminishing health, the loss of our dreams or the fading of opportunities.

Let me be quick to affirm that grieving is healthy as long as we are progressing through the grief process as opposed to becoming stuck in our grief.

The Bible never tells us not to grieve, but it does counsel us not to grieve “as those who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13).

Be aware that the empty chair at the Christmas dinner table, the Christmas card labeled “return to sender” or the empty pillow on the other side of the bed can all trigger a seemingly overwhelming sense of darkness, loneliness or grief.  Grief is a naturally part of life.  However, unprocessed grief is unhealthy and can lead to anger, depression or even physical illness.

During the holidays, rather than being overwhelmed by the darkness of grief, look your grief in the eye and call it by name. Dialogue with your grief. Don’t deny it or ignore it. But just because grief is present, it doesn’t have to be dominant.  Don’t let grief dictate or dominate the mood or conversation of your holiday celebration.

I am convinced that because we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14), our faith gives us the capacity to experience the pangs of grief and “the peace of God, that transcends all understanding” (Philippians 4:7) simultaneously.

Our faith does not exempt us from the darkness, but our faith does equip us to deal with our grief with deep-seated hope.

Hinting at what life will be like when the promised Messiah comes, Isaiah 9:2 envisions that, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.”

Walk through the darkness with courage. Just don’t take up residence in the shadows. Grief does not have the final word.

Today is the darkest day of the year.  But tomorrow, the days start getting longer, bringing a little more light.  The psalmist reminds us that “Weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning.” (30:5b)

After the long night of darkness, then comes the light, gradually, but certainly.

Be careful not to let the darkness of grief eclipse the Light of Christmas.

(Barry Howard serves as a pastoral counselor who leads Healthy Grief Groups in Pensacola, Florida.)

When God Moved into the Neighborhood

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One of my favorite passages to reflect on at Christmas is found in the first chapter of the gospel of John. In The Message, Eugene Peterson translates verse 14 like this: The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood (John 1:14a MSG).  This earthy translation traces the incarnation to our front door.

Often overlooked as one of the biblical Christmas stories, the first chapter of John’s gospel describes the incarnation in philosophical prose. In contrast,  Matthew and Luke composed nativity narratives which chronicle the birth story of Jesus.  John, however, portrays Jesus as the Word who came to bring life and light to all who are willing to receive it (1:4).  And now, over 2000 years later, this Light still guides our steps and this Life continues to infuse our existence with a sense of purpose and direction.

The gospel accounts are compiled from different vantage points. Just as Matthew’s gospel appeals to the historian and genealogist in us, and Luke’s gospel sings to the poet and musician inside of us, perhaps John’s gospel dialogues with the inquirer and logician within us.

John asserts that in the beginning of all things, the Word co-existed with God. Before order was brought out of chaos, the Word was with God. Before light emerged out of darkness, the Word was with God. Before the first breath exhaled through human nostrils, the Word was with God. The Word was, is, and always will be in sync with God.

The Greek term translated and personified as the Word is logos. Logos is a philosophical concept which can be translated as “ultimate meaning” or “reason for being.” During Christmas we may see or hear the familiar slogan that says, “Jesus is the reason for the season.” I think John is actually proposing this Word incarnate informs our reason for being.

According to John, the Word took on human form and moved into the neighborhood. In other words, God not only entered the world as a human being on our behalf, but God has strategically chosen to be near and accessible to us.  In the incarnation, the God of the universe, who transcends our capacity to comprehend or control, has freely and lovingly chosen to relate to us in a personal way and to communicate with us in a language we can understand…an exemplary human life.

Remarkably, God not only invites us to receive light and life; God also calls us to be life and light wherever we live and wherever we go. As we follow the teachings of Jesus and emulate the example of Jesus, we become light and life in our community. As we serve God by serving others, especially the “least among us,” we too, mysteriously, become God’s flesh and blood, God’s hands and feet in our neighborhood.

In all seasons, may we share the Light and the Life with others in the way that we live and serve.