While carols and bright lights urge us to fill our hearts with cheer, some cannot find joy in the Christmas season. The environment demands folks to wear merry smiles, but those who grieve feel emptiness instead. The tension between social expectations and hollowness deepens sorrow for those who are experiencing loss. This week’s post invites the mourning and compassionate to see the true purpose of Christmas. Not as circumstantial happiness, but as God’s loving presence where cheer was nowhere to be found.
The people of God suffered under the rule of a tyrant, oppressed with heavy taxes from a foreign power. No prophets had brought word from the Lord in hundreds of years. Poor and oppressed, they clung to the merest threads of hope if they had any at all. Jesus’ birth occurred in the direst circumstances and he shared his first home with livestock. He came into a dismal place in time to parents without shelter.
Hundreds of years earlier, Jeremiah (Jer. 31:15) prophesied an unimaginable depth of grief would cast a bleak backdrop for the Messiah’s arrival. King Herod slaughtered all the boys under two years old. “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more” (Matthew 2:18). Infants and toddlers in the greater Bethlehem region were ripped from their mother’s arms. Brutally slain before their eyes. Horrific loss stained the streets and scarred the hearts of God’s people.
Christ did not arrive to insist his people’s grief and suffering should not matter. He was born into the midst of pain and loss as Immanuel, God with us. Throughout the gospels, we see his compassion for those who mourn. He never discounts their loss or insists they simply get over it and move on. Jesus weeps for and with the grief-stricken. He takes the time to be present and love them through their pain.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4), he taught the masses. He didn’t demand instant recovery, but assured them it would come in time. For now, the grieving have his blessing.
Before Jesus raised the widow of Nain’s son, “his heart went out to her” (Luke 7:13). He later entered the community of his grieving friends. “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled … Jesus wept.” (John 11:33,35). Even though he planned to raise Lazarus from the dead, he wept at the sight of his mourning loved ones.
The Lord cares for those who grieve. He offers to be present with us in the midst of our suffering. Today, just as at Immanuel’s arrival on earth.
Consider the following tips for responding to those who mourn:
- Avoid trite replies urging mourners to feel better quickly and move on soon.
- Resist platitudes, telling the grieving it’ll be fine and you’ll see them again in heaven.
- Don’t tell those experiencing loss to cheer up. It suggests shame for sorrow.
- Offer to be present with mourners in their sorrow. Hugs and understanding mean more than empty reassurances.
- Provide help with specific, challenging tasks. Give the recently bereaved a list of things you’re willing to do and let them choose (housework, thank you notes, grocery shopping, errands, etc.).
- Even if the loss occurred some time ago, validate those who still experience waves of grief at Christmas. It’s okay to still miss the person you love.
- Suggest ways to honor the memory of the person who passed away (photo collage, charity contribution, community garden, pet rescue). Consider memorializing them through a cause reflecting the best of their character, which helps the grieving see their memory live on instead of fading. There’s no need to forget those who have passed on.
- Finally, be gracious to those who seem irritable or cheerless this Christmas. A little patience and kindness costs nothing, and the humbugs could be a symptom of pain. God alone knows what each person suffers. As he cares for us in sorrow, we best honor the spirit of Christmas by loving those who mourn, too.