Christmas, the Answer to Our Deepest Grief

The needles are just beginning to drop from our tree, water not being drawn up toward the star quite as quickly as when we first brought her inside. This year’s motto of “wrap as you buy!” means the present piles are stacking up, ribbons fluttering gaily from packages often pawed through by children anxious to know how many are theirs. We’ve already made a batch of cinnamon rolls, unable to resist the appeal of maple frosting (PSA: if you try to mix sticky buns with cinnamon rolls by adding pecans to the brown sugar and butter in the bottom of your pan, don’t forget and pour frosting on the top as soon as they come out of the oven, as flipping the pan won’t work out quite as well, afterward!)

We are anticipating the arrival of my eldest son, daughter in law, and my sweet grandson late on Christmas Day, with all the hubbub and noise and fun that entails. And we’re still praying we’ll have a white Christmas–though Tennessee isn’t famous for its cooperation with such northern dreams.

Last week, the sweet ladies of my mom’s group began sharing prayer requests after a morning of Christmas treats and celebration. One has a friend who just lost her 22-year old son to serious illness. Another’s elementary-aged child is going through a rough season they can’t quite put their finger on, precipitating misunderstandings with the child’s teacher and concern over poor grades on the child’s part. Another dear friend asked for prayer for her cousin, whose seven month old died in his sleep last week, packages bearing his name lying abandoned under their tree. As I read another’s new book I am reminded that she has faced miscarriages not once, but twice during the Christmas season.

Of course there are multitudes still trying to put their lives together after fires and floods, hurricanes and earthquakes have devastated their homes. Across the globe wars rage, fathers desperately seek work to provide for their families, mothers scavenge for food, children sleep on the streets.

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!

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!

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. ~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, December 25, 1863

Longfellow, who had lost an infant daughter as well as his wife, wrote this poem as he sat in his home in Cambridge awaiting news of his son, Charles. Having left home months before to join the Civil War, the beginning of December found Charles lying in a Washington, D.C. hospital recuperating from a wound which threatened to paralyze him, the bullet having missed his spine by only an inch. As Longfellow sat at the window sorrowing that Christmas morning, he heard the pealing of bells and began writing. The stanza referring to the grief of war was removed when the poem was later set to music, but the song remains a testimony of something I think we sometimes forget: Christmas is not a distraction from the pain of our world. Lights and sweets, presents and carols, parties and decorations are not a denial of grief but a declaration of hope, an affirmation of ultimate peace, an avowal of future joy.

Grief is real. There is true, deep pain in this broken world of ours.

And over two millenia ago, the answer to it all was lain in a simple manger in Bethlehem under a luminous star.

He is the answer to our grief, our confusion, our pain. Christmas holds it all.

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