The aftermath of the birth of Jesus is followed by two incredible stories. In our homogenization of Christmas, once the shepherds leave in Luke’s gospel, we switch over to Matthew’s dangerous tale about King Herod. This story includes the wise men worshipping the future king as Joseph and Mary prepare to flee with the child into Egypt to escape the wrath of the present king. But in Luke’s version, we find an entirely different version of those first eight days in the life of the newborn.
When Mary was able to travel, instead of making their way directly back to Nazareth, the parents decide to take their child to the Temple in Jerusalem to be circumcised. There they met Simeon, a devout believer who had been promised by God he would not die until he saw the Messiah. As the parents were preparing the child for the ceremony, Simeon approached the couple, took the child in his arms, and said, “O God, now you can take my life for I have seen your salvation. This child will be a light to all people.” Then he turned to Mary and gently offered these words, “And he will be a sword that will pierce your heart.”
Imagine what would happen if in the midst of a baptism, I would turn to you, the congregation, and say, “We will be blessed by this gift from God,” and then whisper to the mother, “But he will break your heart.” I know one thing for sure; I wouldn’t be invited to the post baptism pictures.
I am 64 years old. It is hard to believe that I have never observed a Christmas with a broken heart, but many of you have. I’m not talking about the disappointment we experienced as a child when we had our heart set on one gift and something we never imagined, or for that matter really wished for, was revealed when the Christmas box was opened. I’m not talking about the disappointment of spending Christmas morning without a son or daughter because they are miles away celebrating with their new family. I am referring to that empty feeling that unexpectedly returns during the holidays when one looks at the empty chair once occupied for so many years by a loved one.
My grandfather Andrews died when I was in college. I can’t remember the year. But I will never forget that Christmas. We traveled to Georgia for the funeral. Once there, it was almost a reunion as relatives caught up on old times. The funeral was performed in typical Presbyterian fashion as we were reminded that while this was a sad day, we were to celebrate that my grandfather had begun his eternal life in one of the rooms God had prepared for him. After the service, my family returned to Virginia, and I headed back to college.
When I returned home after exams that December, it was obvious that something was missing in the Andrews’ household. It didn’t smell like Christmas. Each year a lot of time was spent in the kitchen where mom baked cookies and dad made unbelievable candies on his marble slab. These delicacies were shared on Christmas Eve with friends throughout the neighborhood and with strangers who were stuck behind cash registers at the local mall. On any given day one could gain 5 pounds by just waltzing through the Andrews’ kitchen. But this Christmas, no peppermints, chocolates or caramels were created on dad’s marble slab. No trips were planned to the local merchants offering our brand of Christmas cheer. My father had not been able to grieve over the death of his father until the Christmas season arrived. His grief darkened the holiday for all those around him. I knew he was neither the first person nor the last to suffer from this pain. But I also know he was neither the first person nor the last who needed to be reminded Christ trumps our darkness through the glory of his light.
Forty plus years ago, I did not know what to say to my father. I discovered for the first time that not all of the emotions of Christmas are pleasant. But with age comes a little wisdom, and perhaps with that knowledge comes the responsibility to say to you what I wish I had been able to say to my father in his time of despair.
Christmas began with the cry of a newborn. Into the cold of the winter night a child was born just like millions of children had been born before him. He cried out, gasping for the air that brought precious life into his lungs. But Jesus wasn’t the only one who cried that night. Muffled by the exotic songs of angels and the ecstatic shouting of shepherds was the crying of God. For God knew the whole story. This birth would lead to death. This death would break God’s heart. Much too soon, a mother’s joy would be stunned by an ancient prophet who knows God’s plan for salvation. Too soon Mary learned she had little control over the path her son was destined to walk.
The reality of life is that every day we will hear the cry of a mother who has lost her child. Every day we will hear the cry of a son who has lost his father. Every day we will hear the cry of a worker who has lost his job. Everyday we will hear the cry of a loved one who is in the last stages of cancer or heart disease. Every day we will hear the cry of a human heart that is suffering. All of these memories will come back to haunt us during Christmas, that joyous day when it seems everyone else is in the midst of the most glorious celebration of the year.
But the tears of God were more than tears of grief. In this remarkable gift of a father sacrificing a son, we are promised all that has been lost will be restored. God, the grieving father, through the words of Simeon, revives our broken hearts with these words. “My eyes have seen your salvation which has been prepared in the presence of all people. He shall be a light in the midst of darkness.”
Sometimes, with all the bustle, noise and artificial lights of the holiday, we need to be reminded that the eternal light of God is never extinguished, and neither are God’s promises. The original Christmas is about hope, which is fulfilled. The original Christmas is about love, which is eternal. It is about joy, which lingers beyond a day. It is about peace that is everlasting. For some of you, this Christmas is about remembering and grieving over the ones who are no longer with us. It is normal; in fact, it is necessary to shed those tears. But we don’t shed them alone. God knows our pain, sees our tears, and hears our cries. Eventually, when the time is right, the God of hope will lift us up and remind us that our loved ones are resting safely in God’s eternal arms.
At some point, in each of our lives, Christmas will be the longest night of the year. For some of you it was this year. Remember, you did not cry alone. Each year God and Mary shed a tear of sorrow as they remember that first Christmas night. But they also shed a tear of joy. For Christmas remains the night when the word became flesh and dwelt among us. It remains the night when a candle of hope was lit that can never be extinguished. It remains the night when the love of God trumped the darkness in our lives.
Shed your tears of joy and grief.
Shed your tears and know that God cries with you.
Shed your tears, and then when you are ready, sing a song of joy to the one who is our light and our salvation.