Last week I attended the funeral of a parishioner’s mother. As I sat in a cold pew, on a messy, snowy day, I remember thinking how hard Christmas would be for the family this year. When death is so fresh at your door, hearing songs that proclaim this to be the “most wonderful time of the year,” do not exactly ring true. When the loss is so new, finding the energy to send cards or get presents sometimes feels half-hearted, if not impossible. When the absence is so overwhelming, even preparing a favorite recipe of the lost loved one can feel like ripping open one’s heart as you measure, stir, bake, and taste the memories.
I would love to tell families that coping with the loss gets easier over time, but my experience is that no matter how long ago your loved one passed away, the loss still creates an ache in your heart that never really goes away – especially during Christmas time. Society, and even the Church, tells us that the Christmas season is supposed to be filled with joy, light, and hope. But for those with grief, Christmastime just reminds us of all the Christmases that we enjoyed with our loved ones – the memories we have, the traditions we enjoyed together; even the bickering and disagreements would seem preferable to not having our loved one at all. As time goes on and the family grows, you mourn all the new life that they will never see.
Part of the reason we gather today is to honor the shadow side of Christmas. We acknowledge the pain, suffering, and grief that Christmas can bring. We acknowledge the incompleteness, however slight, of the joy of this season. We acknowledge that we might relate more to the Jesus who is in the tomb this season than the happiness of the Jesus born in a manger. Today, on this winter solstice – the one day of the year with the least amount of light – we honor the fact that there are times of darkness in our faith. And the Church stands with us, giving us permission to claim the darkness because, ultimately, we know that the light and the darkness cannot be separated.
That is why I find the gospel lesson today so affirming. In John’s gospel, Jesus tells the disciples, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.” This is the reason why the Church encourages us to acknowledge grief today: because Jesus already knows the hurt is there. That is what makes him such a good shepherd. There is no need to hide the fullness of who we are. There is no need to try to fake good cheer. There is no need to pretend to be constantly festive if we are not. All we have to do is look around this room to realize that not only is Jesus with us in our memories or grief, our brothers and sisters gathered here today are also struggling with the conflicting nature of this season.
Acknowledging that hurt, we come together today to shine a little bit of light into that shadow side of Christmas. Though we name the shadow side of Christmas, we also reclaim the light we find in Christmas. Both in our gospel lesson and in the 23rd Psalm we proclaim the Lord to be our Good Shepherd. We remember that the Lord is with us, that God’s rod and God’s staff comfort us. We remind one another that we are not alone. And we light a candle as we leave this place. In the midst of darkness, we cling to that light – even if only a small flicker from our one candle. We take that candle to our loved one’s grave remembering all the light that they brought to us. But that flame goes with us too. Perhaps we will find that just naming our pain today allows that flame to shine slowly, but steadily, in us. Perhaps as we see the candles flicker at Christmas services in a few days or in our homes over this next week, we will remember the light of Christ reaching out to us, inviting us to remember that the darkness will not overwhelm us. Or perhaps that flame will remind us of a deeper joy – not the joy of presents, eggnog, and parties – but the joy of a Good Shepherd who knows us, who loves us, and who will continue to shine a light onto our path.
On this winter solstice, I invite you to remember that after today, our days start claiming more light. No longer will our days keep getting shorter. Our days will slowly start to lengthen. The light will refuse to let the darkness take over. That is the good news that we proclaim today as we remember our loved ones. Though there may always be a part of us that hides in the shadows of Christmas, Christ still shines a bit of light in our lives too – sometimes only as little light as is found on the winter solstice – but sometimes as much light as we find in the summer solstice. So hold fast to the Good Shepherd. Hold fast to the light. Hold fast to the promise of resurrection life that is for our loved ones and for us. Those promises can make even the shadow side of Christmas a little brighter. Amen.