My dad got the phone call that morning while we ate our classic Christmas breakfast of waffles with ice cream. His dad had passed away in his home in New York. I remember how my dad’s voice broke reading the Christmas story aloud, like a branch I hadn’t noticed as fragile before. Every Christmas moving forward would have that forgotten memory of loss dig its way through gray matter and say “remember me?” like an uninvited guest, plopping itself in front of the tree. I would rather ignore such loss than allow it to cause me discomfort on Christmas. I would rather cover it up with tinsel and sparkles until my dad was far enough away from the pain of loss to talk about it. It was years before we spoke about that day.
Holidays have a way of forcing us to face pain and loss full-frontal. They expose the soft, vulnerable spots we keep armored and encased for protection, causing us to reevaluate all that is important in life.
For me, I tend to bury those areas of pain and hide behind busyness, almost wearing this busy season like a badge of honor because to face the pain holidays can bring up scares me.
Loss can connect us to each other though, can’t it? I read this quote by Megan Devine earlier: “Some things in life cannot be fixed. They can only be carried.”
One painful loss arrived in the form of a baby. Our first baby. This was when Christmas became hard for me. It may seem backwards, but to lose what I thought was my only chance of ever becoming a mom that Christmas season has shaped me into a person of empathy. I hate the loss and what surrounded it, but I wouldn’t be who I am now without it. I know my loss and those pain-filled areas of my life aren’t nearly as pain-filled as other’s lives may be, but our pain and loss connect us.
When 20 children were shot three years ago at Sandy Hook, mothers and fathers tucked their children tightly into Spiderman sheets that night, kissing foreheads and wondering if Christmas would ever be the same again. With tear-stained cheeks, parents everywhere soldered over the loss we felt for our families in Sandy Hook.
When our brothers and sisters have their hands up and can’t breathe. When babies wash up on the shore, nose and mouth buried in the sand. When genocide, big oil, religious extremists, refugees, surgeries, death of a spouse or parent or child, cancers and illnesses, job loss and lost housing, broken friendships and divorces create a visceral response.
That phrase — “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade”? I hate this phrase because it makes light of people’s pain. But when life brings “lemons” and we just want to add sugar to make it taste palatable, we forget the lemons are real life and sometimes some of us only have lemons to work with.
Shrouded in mystery, God slipped into skin in the most vulnerable way as a baby. Born out of blood, sweat, feces, tearing and pain, God chose to enter this world not in royalty but in poverty. In a cold cave, as a minority, in political upheaval and genocide, to a homeless, unwed teenager and stepdad who became refugees. God’s life was in the hands of real people who only had lemons to work with.
Right now it may seem you only have lemons to work with. For me, my lemons became bearable knowing God is with me in that. God-with-us makes all the lemons in the world not the final word in our lives.
Christmas is God-with-us. And within those areas of life bringing sour, bitter, hard-to-palate moments our way, God with us — GOD WITH US – declares you are not alone. You are not alone in that. I know you are loved and cherished to death and beyond. I see that you are valuable and important all the way to God-with-us on a cross and God-with-us in a borrowed grave, and God-with-us conquering that grave to be-with-you always.
In these holiday times when you’re trying to make it through, remember you’re not alone. Not only are there others around you who know hurt and want to help carry the burden of your pain, but God-with-us is right here and hasn’t left you alone in your grief.
Bethany Cseh is co-pastor of Catalyst Church in Arcata.