*The following is the final installment of the Under His Wings Advent experience. Every year I put together an audio + written devotional for the four Sundays of Advent. The theme for this week is “Celebrating.” Listen to the audio version here. Print out the transcript here.
The other day I went for a walk with a new widow friend of mine. Her husband soared to Heaven just two short months ago. As we were crunching through the leaves on our local trail, she told me she and her son were struggling with the approach of Christmas. She couldn’t imagine celebrating without her beloved and wasn’t even sure if she should.
I found myself hearkening back to six years ago – our first Christmas without my husband Ericlee. Everything felt heavy and hard like trudging through molasses or when the sun is so bright you are forced to shield your eyes. My family felt off-kilter. How could we go on without him? Did I have energy to continue the traditions? Could we experience joy in the midst of so much grief?
I heard my friend asking these very same questions as we walked. I listened and nodded, feeling her emotion deep in my own chest. Remembering.
Maybe 2020 has felt like this for you. Maybe you’ve lost a loved one or your business is flailing. Maybe you feel isolated or scattered from your people. Maybe you are feeling extra fragile as we head into this Christmas week. If you are standing in the liminal space –
the in-between – you are not alone.
The question is: How do we celebrate in the midst of a season that is challenging?
One thing I’ve learned on my grief journey is that joy and grief are often awkwardly bumping up against each other. We try to keep them six feet apart, but somehow, they tend to drift back together like kids at recess during a pandemic.
1 Peter 1:6-7 reminds us that learning to rejoice through our trials refines and bolsters our faith: “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith – more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire – may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
People keep talking about 2020 as a “dumpster fire.” What if that fire was designed to shape and refine us so we could shine like gold to others?
We could take some cues from the Jews who have made celebrations and feasts a regular part of their weekly and yearly rhythm. From the Passover to Purim, from the weekly Shabbat to Sukkot, from Yom Kippur to Hanukkah, they give thanks to God in all seasons and celebrate through the hardship. Remembrance and feasting are part of their identity as children of God – whether their pantries are empty or full.
Somehow, we have wandered away from this in our Western Christian traditions. We try to create celebrations that are focused on gift-giving and food. We let commercialism dictate the atmosphere we set in our homes instead of leaning into the Christmas story and all it represents.
Friend, it’s ok if this year has less pomp and circumstance. After all, that’s how Jesus came to earth. The Jews expected a king or a warrior, but Immanuel came as a newborn baby. Jesus wasn’t born in a palace with a grand party and a marquee to celebrate His entrance into the world. Light dawned that morning on a rustic manger and a newborn baby wrapped in swaddling cloths. Tender skin wrapped God in the vulnerability of a human body. He was like us. And He was with us.
Last night I crawled into bed bone tired and weary after a day studying for a final exam, taxi driving kids, and assembling teacher gifts. I closed my eyes and heard this little whisper: “Come.” And there He was, extending His arms to me in the darkness. A baby. Vulnerable and needy, yet welcoming me with kind eyes.
That picture was a sweet reminder that I’m invited to come to the manger with all my raw edges and messy emotions. When I bring it all to the feeding trough where our Savior was born, I am nourished in new ways. The distractions and disappointments slip quietly away.
When we choose hope in the midst of the darkness, when we seek peace in the midst of uncertainty, when we embrace joy in the midst of pain, then we experience God’s profound love.
His love is marked by tension and sacrifice. He sent His one and only child to be born so that He might die. And in the resurrection of that child, we all get to open the gift of grace. We all can discover new life and strength under His wings. This is the Gospel. This is the Christmas story. This is something worth celebrating year after year.
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