I wasn’t there when my grandfather died. But I can picture the moment as if I had been.
I see snow falling in large, wet clumps. It’s dark but for the flickering, harsh light of a single parking lot lamp. Within its rays I catch a glimpse of my uncle, kneeling over my grandfather, desperately trying to pump life back into his father’s heart, breath back into his namesake’s lungs. The CPR isn’t working, however.
It’s cold, so the tears are freezing to my uncle’s face. He had only been away for a few minutes. The two of them had driven to the local hardware store for a last minute need. But when they had arrived, my grandfather said he wasn’t feeling well, and so he stayed in the car while my uncle ran inside. By the time my uncle returned, my grandfather—just a couple months into retirement—had suffered a major heart attack and died.
It was Christmas Eve. Thirty-three years ago.
I know that it was 33 years ago because I was born a year later, also in December.
My family said I was an answered prayer—the only thing that made Christmas bearable, a season now marred by the anniversary of my grandfather’s death.
Truth is the holidays can be difficult for many people. Amid bright lights and festive parties, some of us feel very alone. We may be grieving the death of a loved one or the dream of a loved one never to be. We may be parted from family or friends—or from children by divorce or the estrangement of time. We may be struggling with addiction, or wondering how we’re going to come up with the money to buy gifts for our family this year (or even how we’re going to keep the lights on). We may be facing the new year from a hospital bed, or a nursing home, or a rehab center, or a prison.
Or perhaps we just didn’t feel the Christmas spirit this year—we were too busy or too stressed, while God was too silent.
On December 21, Westminster Presbyterian Church gathered with members of the Auburn community on the longest night of the year to light candles in the dark—one for our grief, one for our courage, one for our memories, one for our love, and one, in the center, for Christ. The community of the faithful gathered as it has every year for the last 12 years to call on Christ to come once again and fill our broken hearts.
This was my first experience of Westminster’s Service of the Longest Night, but I have participated in similar (also known as Blue Christmas) services at other churches. Last year, the church my wife and I visited in Kentucky gave away hand-knit prayer shawls. This year, Westminster gave each person a wooden candleholder, hand carved by elder Robyn Warn and containing a candle lit that evening in memory of a loved one or a prayer yet unanswered.
That night we listened for the good news and sang of the hope that would soon be found again in a manger. We turned our eyes toward the light and found comfort there. And yet, we did not hurry through the pain; we did not rush toward Christmas. Sometimes, when you’re hurting, you just need folks to stop trying to fix everything and instead be in solidarity with your grief. You don’t want to hear that “God has a plan,” or that “God just wanted another angel,” or that “God never gives us more than we can handle.” You don’t want advice. You just want exactly what Christ offered—Emmanuel, “God with us.” You want a companion for the darkness, someone to hold you tight and let you cry.
Rachel Whaley Doll, a friend who struggled with infertility, says, “The most beautiful thing a church member said to me during our struggle was ‘This just sucks, and I had words with God today about you.’ ”
So, I guess you could say, we too had words with God that evening. We brought it all—the pain, the anger, the fear, the hope, the joyful memories and longings, even the doubts. God accepted every bit, and answered, as God always has, not with cheap fixes or platitudes, but with the love of a child who suffers with us and, with a gentle kiss, heals our wounds.
We called this child, Jesus, the Messiah.