Families across the Christian world are gathering for Christmas even now, with caravans of cars and planeloads of passengers headed to hearth and home. Christmas comes once again, filled with the joy, expectation, and sentiment of the season. It is a time for children, who fill homes with energy, excitement, and sheer joy. And it is a time for the aged, who cherish Christmas memories drawn from decades of Christmas celebrations. Even in an age of mobility, families do their best to gather as extended clans, drawn by the call of Christmas.
And yet, the sentiment and joy of the season is often accompanied by very different emotions and memories. At some point, every Christian home is invaded by the pressing memory of loved ones who can no longer gather — of empty chairs and empty arms, and aching hearts. For some, the grief is fresh, suffering the death of one who was so very present at the Christmas gathering last year, but is now among the saints resting in Christ. For others, it is the grief of a loss suffered long ago. We grieve the absence of parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and siblings. Some, with a grief almost too great to bear, suffer the heartbreak that comes with the death of a child.
For all of us, the knowledge of recent events of unspeakable horror and the murder of young children make us think of so many homes with such overwhelming grief.
Is Christmas also for those who grieve? Such a question would perplex those who experienced the events that night in humble Bethlehem and those who followed Christ throughout his earthly ministry. Christmas is especially for those who grieve.
The Apostle Paul, writing to the Galatians, reminds us of the fact that we are born as slaves to sin. “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” [Galatians 4:4] Out of darkness, came light. As the prophet Isaiah foretold, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who walk in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.” [Isaiah 9:2]
This same Christ is the Messiah who, as Isaiah declared, “has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” [Isaiah 53:4] He fully identifies with and shares all our afflictions, and he came that we might know the only rescue from death, sorrow, grief, and sin.
The baby Jesus was born into a world of grief, suffering, and loss. The meaning of his incarnation was recognized by the aged Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, who prophesied that God had acted to save his people, “because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” [Luke 1:78-79]
There are so many Christians who, even now, are suffering the grief that feels very much like the shadow of death. How can they celebrate Christmas, and how might we celebrate with them?
In 1918, a special service was written for the choir of King’s College at Britain’s Cambridge University. The “Service of Nine Lessons and Carols” was first read and sung in the magnificent chapel of King’s College in that same year, establishing what is now a venerable Christmas tradition. In the “Bidding Prayer” prepared to call the congregation together for that beautiful service, the great truths of Christmas are declared in unforgettable prose:
Beloved in Christ, be it this Christmastide our care and delight to hear again the message of the angels, and in heart and mind to go even unto Bethlehem and see this thing which is come to pass, and the Babe lying in a manger.
Therefore let us read and mark in Holy Scripture the tale of the loving purposes of God from the first days of our disobedience unto the glorious Redemption brought us by this Holy Child.
But first, let us pray for the needs of the whole world; for peace on earth and goodwill among all his people; for unity and brotherhood within the Church he came to build, and especially in this city.
And because this of all things would rejoice his heart, let us remember, in his name, the poor and helpless, the cold, the hungry, and the oppressed; the sick and them that mourn, the lonely and the unloved, the aged and the little children; all those who know not the Lord Jesus, or who love him not, or who by sin have grieved his heart of love.
On the very evening of the celebration of Christ’s birth, Christians are called to remember, in Christ’s name, the poor and the helpless, the cold and the hungry, the oppressed and the sick, the lonely and the unloved, the aged and the children, those who do not know Christ, “and them that mourn.”
The church is filled with those who, while not grieving as others grieve, bear grief as Christians who miss their loved ones, who cherish their memories, and who wonder at times how to think of such grief at Christmas. Far too many homes are filled with them that mourn.
And it will be so until Christ comes again. The great truth of Christmas is that the Father so loves the world that he sent his own Son to assume human flesh and to dwell among us, to die for our sins and to suffer for our iniquity, and to declare that the kingdom of God is at hand. This same Jesus was raised from the dead on the third day, conquering death and sin. There is salvation, full pardon from sin, and life everlasting to those who believe and trust in him.
Christmas is especially for those who mourn and suffer grief, for the message of Christmas is nothing less than the death of death in the death and resurrection of Christ.
And them that mourn. Christmas is especially for those bearing grief and sorrow. Our joy is hindered temporarily by the loss we have suffered, even as we know that those who are in Christ are promised everlasting life. We know that even now they are with Christ, for to be absent from the body is to the present with the Lord.
Christians bear a particular responsibility to surround fellow believers with this confidence, and to minister Christmas joy and love to those bearing griefs. We stand together in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, declaring with the Apostle Paul that nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God. We bind one another’s hearts, respect one another’s tears, and remind one another of the blessed hope. For, it was Christ himself who promised that our “sorrow will turn into joy.” [John 16:20] When we sing Christmas carols and read the great Christmas texts of the Bible, we hurl the message of life over death against the Evil One and death, who meet their ultimate defeat in Christ.
That Bidding Prayer written for King’s College, Cambridge, in 1918 draws to a close with words that speak so powerfully to the Church about these very truths:
“Lastly, let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore, and in a greater light, that multitude which no man can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom in the Lord Jesus we are for ever one.”
Those words are exactly right. Those who have gone before us to be with the Lord are with us in Christmas joy. They rejoice with us, “but upon another shore, and in a greater light.” Our loved ones in Christ are in that unnumbered multitude “whose hope was in the Word made flesh.” The great truth of Christmas is shouted in the face of death when we declare that, even now, “in the Lord Jesus we are forever one.”
Your loved one was not created and given the gift of life merely for that chair now empty. Those who are in Christ were created for eternal glory. We must train our sentiments to lean into truth, and we must know that Christmas is especially for those who grieve.
And them that mourn. The chair may be now empty, but heaven will be full. Remember, above all else, that those who are in Christ, though dead, celebrate Christmas with us — just upon another shore, and in a greater light. Merry Christmas.
Originally published December 24, 2012