What’s the very best part of Christmas?
One of the best parts of the Holiday season is the joy of being together with family and friends. For me, it’s no different. Each year, my family celebrates Christmas day at my parent’s place—a picturesque 100+ year-old farmhouse, nestled on 10 acres in the rolling hills of central Wisconsin’s rural countryside. We literally go over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house each Christmas. Year after year, many from my family fill this charming old house with the wood stove crackling, the smells of delicious food wafting and people laughing. It is truly a precious time.
The Christmas experience changed, however, for our family four years ago. Christmas day that year fell exactly two months after my 17-year old niece Kameron’s tragic death. The fire still crackled and the smells of delicious foods still wafted through the quaint old farmhouse, but there was markedly less laughter. To be honest, I had tremendous anxiety in the weeks, days and hours leading up to Christmas. I knew there would be a gaping hole in our family, just as there was a gaping hole in my heart, as we gathered together around the Christmas tree. Now, again this year, as my family prepares to gather we are grieving the very recent passing of Alex, my 22-year old nephew, who went to be with Jesus just last month. Yet again, there is a hole in my heart and in my family as Christmas Day approaches.
For many, sadness will be the unfortunate reality this Christmas. Many will bear the ache of loss on Christmas day—loss at the hands of death or divorce or distance or something else. The grief can be especially searing at the sight of an empty chair or chairs around the dinner table or by the stocking that goes untouched by the fire. If the best part of Christmas is the precious time with friends and family, then the pain of loss burns all the more intensely on this day verses any other.
Psalm 23 doesn’t seem like an appropriate text for the Holiday season, but as I’ve recently reflected on this particular passage, I have found it comforting as this Christmas approaches. As David, the writer of this Psalm, speaks of the valley of the shadow of death, he reveals something comforting about the character of God during times of loss:
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. Psalm 23:4
Consider what this psalm is saying to those who have heavy hearts this Christmas: “Even though…” my heart aches from loss this Christmas, God, “you are with me” and you “comfort me” in the midst of it all! In other words, we can know that in the midst of loss, as we strain to see through the fog of grief and as we confront the deep ache of death or divorce or distance, our God is with us. This is at the very core of the Christmas story:
Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). Matthew 1:23 (emphasis mine)
Immanuel, God with us! The incarnation, the act of God becoming flesh in Jesus Christ, is a beautiful picture of God’s nearness to humankind. Our God is a personal God, who left the comforts of heaven to draw near to those he loves with intimacy and compassion!
The 23rd psalm doesn’t end there, however. There is an additional image in the following verse that gives me hope this Christmas. Immediately following the journey through the valley of the shadow of death, there is a feast!
You prepare a table before me, in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Psalm 23:5
With the valley of the shadow of death looming in the immediate past, perhaps even as the sojourner is recovering from the arduous and difficult journey, there comes a feast. Not just any feast, but one that is hosted and prepared by the very hand of God, to be enjoyed even as enemies lurk and at which the grace of God pours out upon and overflows within those around the table!
When I look at this God-hosted banquet described in Psalm 23, I am reminded of the dinner table that so many will gather around this Christmas. I see many who are hurting, seated at the Christmas table with heavy hearts struggling to catch their breath from the difficult journey of grief and loss. Then, I imagine the very presence of God at that table, as he lovingly showers his joy-creating, life-giving, heart-restoring grace to the point of overflow upon those weary souls seated at the table!
This is my prayer for my family and for all who mourn this Christmas! May you allow yourself the freedom to properly lament—to not run from or ignore the pain you feel, but instead process your loss deeply and appropriately. However, I also pray “that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13b).” May the truth that God is with us radically transform the way you grieve! Though it’s good and healing and appropriate that tears of sorrow roll down our cheeks, find hope in the promise that is the source of true joy for the Christian—that one day the very hand of God will wipe those tears away! One day “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore (Revelation 21:4),” and God will make all things new!
This is the very best part of Christmas!