The holidays have a way of harrowing the soul. Irrespective of the kaleidoscope of lights and the shimmering potentialities of wrapped presents, something cold and ragged claws at our thoughts. Similar to how November strips the trees bare, the holidays have a knack for pulling away our protective canopies and leaving us emotionally exposed, feeling the chill of a world not as it should be. And like December’s descending winds, the holidays blow by us with jingles of merriment, visions of warm festivities and awaited gifts—but often leave us shivering in their wake, feeling colder for the discord, colder for the want of things that are not.
There is an inherent dissonance in the holidays because they are exactly that: holy days. They are days that speak of holiness—the complete otherness and consuming, infinite worth of the God who self-designates as the I Am that I Am. The Wholly Other One Who Is. They are days that speak of this blazing fire of love and how he has ordered the world, how he has invaded the world, and is now reconciling the world to himself through the Good News of Jesus. But this fleeting sense of holiness haunts our days—for our days are also days of unholy desires, self-sick motions; days of melancholy wrapping our necks like scarves of wet wool; days of chemotherapy laying waste to our bodies, thinning us to the bones beneath; days of ennui that a Technicolor array of entertainments just can’t seem to dispel; days of loneliness amongst the crowds; days of remembering what it was like to hold your newborn’s perfectly fashioned hand moments after he took his last breath.
Today is December 5th, 2016. Haven, my firstborn son would have been five years old today—talking incessantly, roughhousing with new toys, leading his younger siblings in building and destroying couch-cushion fortresses, and taking an afternoon nap as excitement collapses into adrenaline exhaustion. But there is no party today. Only the yearly ritual of a slow-motion morning, swell-waves of tears, clumsily fitting together fragmented memories with my wife, struggling through ruthless what-ifs, and then wading through a photo book of the one morning we spent with our son. His eyes closed in every picture, the inexorable question of their color comes to mind over and again. Would they have been emerald like my wife’s, or a greyer set of tones like my own?
For me, like so many others, December holds untold grief. But death’s hammer-strike upon my heart has excavated a gold vein that I find sinks into the deepest bedrock of my being. Hope survives, converges, and rises amidst the grief. Danish philosopher, idiosyncratic author, and all around curious thinker Soren Kierkegaard has often been a walking companion for me in sojourning through the badlands of this world. As is often is the case with my dear old friend Soren, he takes me by bittersweet surprise.
Rereading some of his parables the other day, this one proved well-timed and needed: “When the prosperous man on a dark but starlit night drives comfortably in his carriage and has the lanterns lighted, aye, then he is safe, he fears no difficulty, he carries his light with him, and it is not dark close around him. But precisely because he has the lanterns lighted, and has a strong light close to him, precisely for this reason, he cannot see the stars. For his lights obscure the stars, which the poor peasant, driving without lights, can see gloriously in the dark but starry night. So those deceived ones live in the temporal existence: either, occupied with the necessities of life, they are too busy to avail themselves of the view, or in their prosperity and good days they have, as it were, lanterns lighted, and close about them everything is so satisfactory, so pleasant, so comfortable — but the view is lacking, the prospect, the view of the stars.”
As Kierkegaard parabolically points out, one of the veiled joys of grief, if I may state it so strangely, is that grief blows in and extinguishes all the lanterns of comfort and distraction we have tried so industriously to keep lit. It is in those instances of in-rushing fear when all lantern-light is snuffed out that one’s heart is suddenly, unexpectedly impressed with the guiding beauty of God’s starlight. And in a world where our default guiding star is our own frail voice saying, “I must take care of myself; I must light the way,” there is no greater relief than to drop our blackened and broken matches, look up into the vault of heaven and say, “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8:4) Under God’s glorious jurisdiction, every grief can be a severe mercy.
As you likely know, a recurring reflex of grief is the terrible wondering just how the world can keep on going as though nothing has happened. We ask in our inarticulate groans and cries, “How insignificant are we that our now unhinged life does not undo the heavens at their celestial seams? How can everything just keep moving on as though all were not wrong? My baby boy has died—how dare there be traffic on these highways. Where are you people going? I watched my wife gently hold and rock our firstborn son as he fell silent—how can the radio hosts keep laughing, keep hocking their advertiser’s wares with chirpy voices? Everything has changed—how can these banal emails keep pouring in? How can people come and go so blithely, filling up their crass shopping carts with groceries? Do they not know what day it is?”
But ah, God is mindful! Mindful of us. Intimately acquainted with the contours of our pain. He is tuned in to our staccato songs of grief. It is in grief—when our world staggers and stalls while the world beyond us keeps merrily spinning and shinning—that we can drink deeply of the cup of God’s care for those unhinged by hurt. See, the heavens don’t have to split at the seams because our heart is broken open—at least not yet. Why? Because something more catastrophic has taken place: the very one who stitched the heavens together and lamp-lit the night, the Creator, God the Son, Jesus, stepped in to the fray to meet grief face-to-face. He was torn himself, not just the heavens and the stars that reveal His creativity, power, and goodness. The Maker undone. The Savior split at the seams. The Redeemer crucified. And He won in the rending. The sting was torn out of death. The dragon unstitched by the tender gift that Christmas would bring. And so it is that even amidst all our carriage lights being violently snuffed out, we can proclaim, “O LORD our lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (Psalm 8:9)
These are holy days—days that turn our attention to the Christ child, born roughly in the cold of night, writhing blood and flesh placed in the mean estate of a manger. God caught in the travail and confusion of being born—infant eyes taking in a swirl of strange information. Swaddled and sovereign—unthinkable and wonderful! These are holy days that tell the tale of heaven’s invasion into a dark and battered earth. Days that say, “Rejoice! For this babe was born that man no more may die. Rejoice! For this child’s cradle leads to a cross, and the cross an overture to an emptied grave and a chorus of angels around the King’s triumphant throne.
As Advent begins, and the birthday memorial of my firstborn son presses in upon me, I can’t help to think back upon the horror of watching my son struggle to breathe and then die—and then I realize that God the Father knows such pain to magnitudes that I could neither fathom nor express. Because the Son of God struggled to breathe upon that cross that held the curse of sin, and because the grave could not restrain this uncontainable king, my son can now live. I can now live. We can now live, in hope, and carry on with honest glad tidings, and true good will towards men. These are holy days, icy blue and brilliant gold, shot through with sadness and shining with an invincible hope, for:
…to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.