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Thoughts on Grief at Christmas

Posted by Taylor Sandlin on

The classic holiday cartoon, A Charlie Brown Christmas, begins with a forlorn Charlie Brown lamenting to his best friend Linus that he just doesn’t understand Christmas. He’s going through all the motions getting presents and sending Christmas cards, but he admits, “I’m still not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.”

Linus, who is a good friend, nevertheless struggles to understand Charlie Brown’s sadness. While he probably thinks he’s helping, his response to his friend’s sorrow only affirms Charlie Brown’s fear, there’s no room for sorrow at Christmas.

Maybe you feel that way tonight. This is after all a season in which our entire culture seems to declare that there is no room in the inn or the family gathering or even in our worship services for those to grieve. This after all, we are told, is a season of celebration.

What then do we do if we do not feel like celebrating?

One thing we can do is pause for at least a few moments and remember that our well-meaning friends don’t always have the best advice. In the Bible, Job, whose life was a story of sorrow and sadness, had well-meaning friends. They go on and on for ages about how Job just needs to cheer up and get it together. In the end, God tells those friends that they don’t know what they are talking about.

If those friends had read the totality of the scriptures, they would know that God gives us room to grieve. God knows, that while there is much to celebrate in this life, there is also much to grieve. In fact, much of our grief arises when someone we used to celebrate is no longer with us. God understands that in such moments, our hearts need to express our love in a different way. When one we love is with us, we celebrate their presence with joy. When that same loved one is away from us, that same love expresses itself in grief.

Grief, then, is not a sign of despair or hopelessness, at least it need not be. It is first and foremost a sign of love. We do not grieve for those we do not love. We grieve mightily for those we do.

In the Bible, grief shows up again and again. In fact, there is one book of the Bible, Lamentations that is nothing but grief. For five chapters, the author of Laminations gives full vent to his grief, and in doing so, he discovers the comfort of God because he finds that in God’s kindness he gives us room to grieve. 

Just a surface reading of the book lets us know that for God’s children, it’s ok to cry. Mourning the fall of Jerusalem and the death of many loved ones, the poet writes on tear soaked pages, “My eyes overflow with tears” (1:16). In another spot, “Bitterly [I] weep at night; tears are upon [my] cheeks” (1:2).” And then later, “My groans are many and my heart is faint.” Grief and pain pour off his lips. The aching is tangible. At one point he wonders of both himself and his fallen city, “Your wound is as deep as the sea. Who can heal you?” (2:13).

But it’s not just tears we find. The poet goes through the broad range of emotions surrounding grief. He gets angry at others producing a scorching diatribe against their sins. He gets angry with God saying “the Lord is like an enemy.” He expresses doubt, wondering out loud if God has abandoned his people forever. Whereas the poet is sure that the “Lord has given full vent to his wrath,” the poet gives full vent to his grief. And God takes it. 

God doesn’t take it because he is weak, or incompetent, or absent, but God gives us room to grieve because of his loving-kindness. What’s remarkable in this book, is not the grief expressed, for grief is part and parcel of the human condition, but rather that in his grief, the author finds God.

Halfway through the book, in chapter 3:22-24, the author declares:

19 I remember my affliction and my wandering,
    the bitterness and the gall.
20 I well remember them,
    and my soul is downcast within me.
21 Yet this I call to mind
    and therefore I have hope:

22 Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
    for his compassions never fail.
23 They are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
24 I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
    therefore I will wait for him.”

Sometimes we are afraid of expressing our grief because we fear that it will consume us. Our well-meaning friends are obviously afraid of grief, that’s why, like Linus did to Charlie Brown, they cut off our grief before we have time to fully express it.

Take heart, far from being afraid of grief and mourning, God invites us to give full vent to our heartache. He knows (because he made us) that our healing can never come from evading our pain, but that we must face our pain in the presence of the One who can heal. Isolating our pain only makes things worse, but giving voice to our grief and our sorrow connects us to the one who shares our suffering.  Emboldened by the loving kindness of God, we voice the thing which we once dared not speak and discover, we are not consumed.

God after all, loved us so much, that he entered our brokenness in the person of Jesus Christ, in order that we might through Christ, enter into God’s perfect comfort and peace. This is what Christmas is all about. If we look closely, not at hallmark’s version of Christmas, but at the Bible’s, we discover that there is room for those who grieve at Christmas. Jesus came not for those who have it all together, but rather for those who long for a better world.

May you grieve this Christmas in the presence of Christ. May you discover in this season of grief, that God’s love is enough to see you through each day. May the presence of Christ fill you with hope as we wait on Christ to come again and once for all make all things new.

Grace and peace,