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Love and peace to you, friends, as we begin this final week of Advent ~
I wonder if you, like me, finds yourself not only in a wintry landscape beyond the window pane, but also holding some swirling snowdrifts within. Some blankets of grief or loss you’re both huddled under but also trudging through, one faithful step at a time.
I have vivid memories from this time nine years ago. My father was very ill, and my husband and I were preparing a Longest Night service at the church we pastored. Many congregations have the tradition of holding such a service — sometimes called a “Blue Christmas” service — on or around the winter solstice (December 21). The earth is tilted as far away from the sun as possible, and we experience more darkness than any other day of the year.
These Longest Night/Blue Christmas gatherings are meant to create space for the pain we carry in “the most wonderful time of the year.” There is room for lament and tears, all held in the shelter of our earth facing the greatest of darknesses too.
Nine years ago, I was awash in sadness and questions. I did my best to focus during the service, reading the texts, lighting the candles. As we reached the end of the service, I looked down from the chancel at the small crèche set on the simple table. The manger scene held everyone we would expect. Mary, Joseph, shepherds, angels. My eyes landed on the small carving of Jesus, nestled in the middle.
Each person who came into the tiny, stained glass chapel that night had received a strip of cloth. The cloth symbolized a bandage for a wound. I told them this was a place to write something painful they were carrying this Christmas.
I looked up from the crèche and said, “The Hope of the World is swaddled in concern and love for us. Vulnerable, painful wounds are met in Jesus Christ’s unflinching compassion for the world. You are invited to come forward as you are able and feel comfortable to place your wound in the manger.”
After a long pause, one courageous soul took steady steps to the manger, letting their tears fall as they tucked their strip by Jesus. Then one after another, more and more people came forward to place their pain in the manger. To give their loss to Jesus. To let their grief be named.
My fingers clung to my own cloth, silent tears sliding down my nose. I realized my husband’s hand was on my shoulder. I needed to make my way to the manger, but I couldn’t do it alone. He walked alongside, standing beside me as I lay my own brokenness in a place where I wasn’t promised I would be relieved, but that I’d be seen. And held.
We know deep down how honoring our grief is the way we will wake up on Christmas morning a little more whole. And how bearing witness to what one another are carrying is perhaps the most profound gift we could give one another this Christmas.
I’m reminded of a story I once read from Madeleine L’Engle’s book, Walking on Water, in which she describes a beloved rabbi teaching his students. At one point, one of his students exclaimed, “My master, I love you!”
The rabbi looked at the young student and said, “Do you know what hurts me, my son?”
The student was confused, telling the rabbi he didn’t understand.
“If you do not know what hurts me,” said the rabbi, “how can you truly love me?”
The deepest pain we feel is directly linked to our deepest love. We care for each other the way Jesus does when we know why someone hurts…who and what someone loved.
These emotions are hard to feel. I find myself trying and failing to do this same work I’m trying to help my kids do when I tell them, “your job is to feel your feelings.” It’s much easier to distract or numb or stick something in my mouth. It takes intention, courage, and trust to say, “I am going to feel this.”
Know you are not alone in the grief you carry. The grief journey is never over. We never move on, but we somehow move forward, one day at at time. There are other bandaged souls who will put their hand on your shoulder as you make the wounded walk together. And awaiting you in that creche are arms which welcome every single thread of your cloth.
Though this prayer is titled for parents, I believe it can resonate for any and all of us carrying the caring….we put so much on ourselves to “make” Christmas be something special for those we love. Here is the invitation to receive. And to rest.
From my book, Ash and Starlight…
A Parent’s Advent Prayer
I now stop what I’m doing,
what I’m thinking,
what I’m scrambling to plan
and hustling to finish
so that I can
Be here in the safety and warmth of your love.
This love that holds me fast and keeps me centered.
What I want to be a season of joy for my children
so quickly becomes a season of
increased expectations for me –
not because they expect things,
but because I do.
It’s the pressure I put on myself to
make things perfect,
But you came to me amidst darkness and stars –
reminding me how darkness and light
are most beautiful together.
And in that holy, mysterious and messy night,
you re-defined perfection,
promising me that leaning into the mystery
and laying down in loving awe
compose the most faithful response.
You tell me the best gift I can give
my children this Christmas is
to look with love into their eyes.
To pause throughout the day
to pray over them.
To envelop them with arms
of fierce grace when I feel
most angry or annoyed.
To sit in wonder for a moment (or many)
and marvel at all that shaped
our family this year.
To give thanks
and allow tears to fall
and dreams to rise.
To take my pilgrim band
by their hands and walk together,
deep into the heart of Bethlehem
shining bright within our souls.
This will be more than enough,
because you’ve made a manger
in which my heart will rest and find
your heartbeat becoming mine.
Matthew 2:10-11 * Matthew 6:31 * Luke 2:15-20
“Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this
thing that has taken place, which the Lord
has made known to us…” – Luke 2:15
Something that nourished me recently…
Quite a few sources lately…
* Learning two things: One, it is possible to thank our grief. And two, it is possible to grow deeper connection with someone we love, even after they have died. A friend recently told me about Anderson Cooper’s podcast, “All There Is,” in which he goes on an exploration of loss and grief while packing up his late mother’s apartment. It has taken my breath away, friends. Every single episode will stop you in your tracks, but especially before Christmas, I encourage you to listen to the final episode of the season, “You’re not alone.” In it is tremendous testimony after testimony of people naming what they’ve learned from loss. You won’t leave the listening unchanged.
* Christmas lights. I’ve written here about the process of going through and selling my childhood home this year after my mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. A tradition on the culdesac I grew up on was to hang Christmas “balls.” This year, my husband made some balls for us—a connection and tangible symbol of the light which continues to shine in change. And in grief.
* Cloves in Oranges….A kind friend had my kids and I over to decorate oranges with cloves. It truly smells like heaven as you poke those little things in. And according to science, scents have a stronger link to our memories and emotions than any other sense.
* Our first Christmas pageant in person since before COVID. Our family included a raven, sheep, and two angels—plus a pastor.
And then, this card given to me years ago from a friend which I keep taped above my desk and look at over and over and over….Thank you, Jewels.
Ash & Starlight, plus other good things….
* Find Ash and Starlight here.
* Speaking of grief, remembrance, and action…I’ve been thinking about how Sandy Hook happened ten years ago last week. Please take some time on this page. Read about them, look at their faces, pray, donate, do something. Activism is a powerful form of grieving.
A couple things to feed your soul, especially if it’s feeling tender.
* Our church is partnering to host a Longest Night service this Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. led by The Many, a diverse, inclusive music collective. The service will be live-streamed with a recording available afterward on our church website.
* This devotional. If you are new to Sanctified Art, you are in for a powerful treat. I’ve been reading through it this Advent and have been deeply moved, challenged, and opened. The art, writing, and music are all stunning.
With you, friends, as we walk to the manger. Deep peace to you. And a hand on the shoulder.
Love and Light,