I remember them in fragments, the words that mean Christmas to me. I remember the illustration in a big picture book, a background in such a dark purple that it seemed as dark as a night sky, and on that page the words “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.” I wasn’t old enough to read them for myself, or to know what they really meant, but I began to recognize the shapes of the words heard each year in my church’s Christmas pageant and read aloud by my mother or my grandmother.
I remember Linus reciting the words about the shepherds, to teach Charlie Brown the true meaning of Christmas. I was 4 the first time the special aired, and my early memories are all in black-and-white. I remember the tinkling, glassy sound of the pine needles falling off the pitiful, beautiful Christmas tree Charlie Brown loved.
I remember singing Handel’s Messiah for the first time, as a freshman in high school, the words and notes dancing across the page, leaning on the Choir Director’s own strong alto to help me capture and tame them. I remember the strength and beauty of her voice, and I remember these words, too, “He was despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” She was singing about Jesus, not the baby who was so important to my early memories, but the man I was coming to know as I grew older.
In college I listened to another of my teachers sing that solo, on a beautiful winter night, in a candlelit church. I was 20, and I thought I knew what it meant to be sad, and I felt the beauty and the grief as deeply as I could at that moment in my life.
But life would teach me later that I was not really acquainted with grief. I knew dissatisfaction and disappointment. I knew heartache and rejection. But grief came later.
Grief, of course, can contain all those things. But it moves beyond our hearts and minds and into our bones, and it takes time to learn to live with it, and it takes time to learn to live without it again.
It was 1992, and as I prepared for a trip from Maine to Virginia to see my parents and extended family, I carried my grief for a lost baby along with me. Everywhere I looked I imagined I saw pregnant women, only to realize on second glance they were not. And as the time came when my son would rightly have been born, I found the sight of other people’s babies nearly unbearable.
This trip meant meeting my brother’s new son, born just weeks before my baby had been due.
Taking that trip also meant missing Christmas Eve services at our familiar church in City By the Sea, the place I had turned in my loss and grief.
And so I found myself among people I ought to have considered “mine,” aunts and uncles and cousins of one generation or another. On the day the whole family gathered, an aunt asked how I was, and knowing she was also a mother who had buried a child, I started to tell her. “Okay,” I said, in that way that means not okay at all. And she shocked me by saying, “No one wants to know about that. People just want you to smile and say ‘I’m fine!’”
Oh, it stung! It stung!
But in that exchange I learned a hard truth about her own grief, her own terrible loss, the dreadful things people must have said to her many years before.
“Despised and rejected, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.”
Every year I listen to The Messiah, and every year I feel the isolation of that man of sorrows, our savior, Jesus Christ. I could leave off with the happy Christmas section of the oratorio, but I know what is coming, and I know that his sorrow is as much a part of the story as the wonder of his birth, the tragedy of his crucifixion and the mystery of his resurrection. It is in his sorrow that we know he truly shared our human experience, that he felt our feelings, that he knows our grief.
We are not alone. We are loved by a God who understands our grief, our isolation, our sorrow, because God, in Jesus, experienced those human feelings. Yes, God is cosmic and distant, so great and powerful that our minds cannot fully grasp God’s reality. But God is also present. And our stories teach us that God is present to the humblest people, that God arrived among us in the humblest of forms, a baby born to a couple who had no place to lay their heads for the night, a baby celebrated by the lowest of the working class folk around, the shepherds.
Those shepherds, huddled cold on a hillside, experienced the terror and wonder of a visit from angels. They lived in a moment when the veil between our world and another reality was pierced, like the sharp knife thrust of the wind on a winter night. Surely they gasped. Surely they cried out! Surely they wondered if life as they knew it were suddenly ending!
It is among the stories that helped me rebuild my broken heart, this wonder of shepherds, these songs of Christmas, although they hurt so much to hear that first year. In the life of Jesus, and in his death faced out of love for us, God’s love walked embodied. This is the Good News we may embrace, even in the midst of our own sorrows, even in the midst of our own grief. God is with us, Emmanuel, and we are never alone. Even now, the angels are singing it to us. Amen.