When people say, “Christmas is in the air” they mean happiness, excitement, even euphoria. It’s hard to miss it. Our neighbours are busy adorning their houses with lights and wreaths. Young children, savoring candy canes, queue in shopping malls to meet Santa. Calendars are marked by Christmas socials with friends and dinners with family. With all of its sights and sounds, the Christmas season exudes positive feelings of wonder and nostalgia. For so many, it really is their favourite time of the year.
But for those grappling with grief and the pain of loss, Christmas can be anything but pleasant. The nostalgia of Christmas evaporates when we process the unwelcome thought that this Christmas will not be what it once was and never will be. Though they once energized us, many Christmas festivities now intimidate us because we imagine them without our loved one. We wonder if we can ever watch our favorite Christmas movies again without the sense of deep sadness.
Grief as Waiting
In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis compares grief to waiting. Grief gives life “a permanently provisional feeling,” Lewis writes, “It doesn’t seem worth starting anything. I can’t settle down . . . . Up till this I always had too little time. Now there is nothing but time” (A Grief Observed, 2001, p. 33).
The feelings generated by grief are not unlike those generated by faith. Christians acknowledge that the world which we inhabit was once a paradise, an undefiled temple in which children walked with their God in undiluted joy. Though echoes of its original splendour remain, we now navigate a dark and broken world. We experience a feeling of homesickness within our hearts. More than anything else, we want things to be as they once were.
Life’s Holy Impatience
There is a holy impatience to the Christian life, a sanctified desire for something better. This desire leads believers to experience what Lewis called “a permanently provisional feeling.” All of this is captured by the advent hymns that we sing before Christmas. We might imagine God’s people in the Old Testament crying out, “O come, O come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here.”
It’s not hard to discern grief in Israel’s cry and it’s not unlike the grief we experience at Christmas. But it is a particular kind of grief—faith-grief, perhaps, or believing-mourning. And the cry of this grief is as hopeful as it is tearful. “Come Thou long expected Jesus,” we sing, “born to set Thy people free; from our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in Thee.”
Yearning for the Second Advent
The pain of loss we experience at Christmas is a sample of a much larger pain that every person feels. It is the pain of living in a world still inhabited by evil, still distorted by sin, and still burdened by the consequences of the Fall.
It is the pain of living in a world still unrestored by Christ. In his death and resurrection, Jesus subdued the power of sin and paid its penalty, but the presence of sin lingers. In the pain of sin’s lingering presence we cry out tearfully and hopefully, “Come Thou long expected Jesus.” We yearn for the resurrection of the body, the inauguration of the eschaton, and the revelation of the new creation.
The catharsis for those who feel the pain of loss at Christmas is to sing the songs of advent. Enter into the sadness and shed the tears of homesickness, but sing in hopeful faith. We are waiting, more than watchman who wait for the morning (Ps 130:6). But Jesus is coming again, as certainly as he came the first time. As you grieve, sing, and as you sing, hope.