Scripture reading for today:

Isaiah 66:7-11, Psalm 80:1-7, Luke 13:31-35

How Long Lord?

The first Christmas after my sister died, I wasn’t prepared for how alone and isolated I felt. It started in November when I went to our local Santa Claus parade, where my son’s beaver troop was going to be on one of the floats. I had absolutely no feelings about this parade (I thought). It was still November and it was warm out and I don’t even like Santa Claus parades. I was only going to wave at my son from the crowds. “It isn’t even Advent yet!” I vented to my husband as we drove downtown surrounded by Christmas floats. Then I heard the swell of a Christmas carol in the distance and realized that I had started crying, without even realizing it. It was like the music had turned on a switch in my eyes that made my tears come out, and I was suddenly sobbing. Everyone around me was happy to hear the band play Jingle Bells but that cheerful song made me think of nothing but my own loss. I realized that I was in for a hard few weeks, harder than I had been prepared to admit.

I was waiting on the margins.  

For the grieving, the Advent season can be especially meaningful as we come to understand in a new way the deep longing we feel for the hope of Christ’s return. We feel, to our very core, the need for something beyond this earth. We have seen the fragility of life and the futility of trying to control our futures. Like today’s Psalmist, it may have even felt like we have been made to “drink tears by the bowlful.”

Sometimes those tears came by surprise at a Santa Claus parade. Sometimes they came when walking through a grocery store. Sometimes they came on a birthday or an anniversary or a Tuesday. When the grieving are surrounded by the happiness of Christmas, the bowl of tears seems to keep filling. There is the gift we won’t get and don’t have to buy. There is the empty seat at the table. There is the ornament we unpack that we bought together. There are the memories…and the memories…and the memories….

So we plead with God, again and again: Restore us! Save us!

This feeling is more than appropriate during Advent, a season when we name and embrace longing. Advent, at its core, is a time when we join with the prophets who cry: How long? And hold on to their promises that THINGS CAN CHANGE, even for the brokenhearted. For this reason, the grieving can understand the meaning of Advent in a truly significant way.

But even though Advent can be well understood in grief, it can also be profoundly lonely. For most of the first Christmas after I lost my sister I felt like I was walking in a bubble. All around me people were celebrating and rejoicing. I felt none of it. I asked for hope the first week of Advent, but I was full of despair. I asked for peace the second week but I was a conflicted mess inside. I didn’t know how to feel joy the third week of Advent and I didn’t know how to talk about love on week four without falling apart. On Christmas Eve, I lay in bed for two hours crying, unable to face the happiness I was expected to enjoy.

But, oh, I knew about waiting. I knew about longing. I knew about asking for things to be different, and raging at the ways the world wasn’t what I knew God wanted it to be. In every way I was on the outside, looking in at other people as they celebrated from my bubble of grief. “Restore me, God,” I prayed. “Bring me back. I feel like a shadow of myself. Save me – please.”

On Christmas Eve, I lit the Christ candle with a sigh of relief. Christ had come, Christ would come again. Thanks be to God, I prayed – and I cried some more.

The next Christmas was not nearly as hard. The one after that was easier again, and I have grown to love Christmas again, though it is different in many ways. Now each year during Advent our church hosts a service for those who are grieving. One year there were six people – total. Somehow this service which is the smallest of the season is the hardest for me to lead. It is also the service where I sense I have somehow most understood what Advent is really about.

As the grieving gather and lament and cry and name their pain and declare the ways they wish things were different, I am deeply struck by how much easier it is to feel the presence of Christ in that space than it is at the mall or the Santa Claus parade or any of the office Christmas parties. I see how Jesus shows up to those waiting at the margins.

I now understand that I was not so far from Advent during my time in my grief bubble. I see that being on the outside is often where we best discover the longing Jesus felt as he looked at his children and named his longing to gather them in like a mother hen gathering in her children.  From the outside, he could see the need for healing. From the outside, he saw why we need God’s redemption.

Grieving, or hurting, at Christmas can feel like being on the outside. It can feel like you are on the margins of a happy world you can’t quite reach.  It is hard, but it is also Advent. And Christ will come.

So we wait.

It is hard, but it is also Advent. And Christ will come. So we wait. Click To Tweet

Thank you for reading the New Leaf Advent Reader, a collection of reflections from writers across Canada. If you are enjoying the reader, sign up to receive the readings in your inbox each day here: SIGN UP And please share this reflection with your friends and family who might also enjoy it.

photo credit: Fabrizio Verrecchia