Even in laughter the heart may ache, and joy may end in grief.
So last week our church family held its annual ‘Carols by Candlelight’ event, our building transformed by candle – and fairy – light into a glowing haven on a dark, damp night. Music from the choir, the praise band and the gathered folk themselves, interspersed with readings and video clips to challenge us to look beyond the familiar trappings of the story.
And I stood at the back, weeping inconsolably, bewildered by the force of my grieving, and ashamed to bring it into such a lovely space.
Why, why should I feel wounded and heart-broken as I hear these wonderful words again, words which have marked every Christmas of my life, the story of my Saviour’s birth?
One may be sad at any time of year, and perhaps especially at Christmas when remembering loved ones who have died; realising that life is not working out as you had hoped and that expectations are not going to be realised; recognising that life may be going to get harder, that there are trials and sore tests on the horizon. But it was none of these which I found in my heart last Sunday evening.
I felt myself drowned in the grief of God for a world of human beings whom he loves with a passion which we cannot imagine; and who have consistently refused to recognise his love, rejecting his mercy and scorning his tenderness.
Look around at society today.. chasing material wealth, health and long-life; grasping eagerly at every excuse for a party, a reason to “be cheerful”, trying to live up to the myth of the perfect Christmas and the ideal family. People know that there is more to life than they have already, that is what drives them. But they will not see that in Christ, God has given us what we really need, and that without him, nothing else can satisfy them.
Folk crowd along to carol services, they sing the old familiar songs and watch the old films again; they eat the same foods and play the old games; all reaching vainly after something meaningful and nourishing for their hearts.
But they can’t or won’t see past the glitter, the tinsel, the food and the gifts. The story is there because it has always been there, but they cannot see past the nativity play costumes to the glory enclosed in human flesh; to the priceless gift that Mary held in her arms for the shepherds to adore. Our God, with us, in our mess and desperation; our self-deception and fatal self-sufficiency; our willed blindness to all that might do us good.
Our God, with us, to give us the new hearts that we need to live well, to live forever with him in wholeness and joy.
Is it not enough to make us weep? That we who have been given this gift – through no merit of our own, but entirely by God’s grace and goodness – should be unable to open the eyes of our neighbours, colleagues, family and friends to what we have.
I know it is wrong to despair, but I think it is good to realise a little of how our utterly good God must grieve over this world in its stubborn refusal to hear him. I think that there is a place for mourning at Christmas, for calling out to God by his Holy Spirit to open blind eyes, and breathe life into dead bones. The hymn ‘It came upon the midnight clear’ expresses this so tenderly:
But with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel strain have rolled two thousand years of wrong;
And man at war with man, hears not the love song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife, and hear the angels sing.
And ye, beneath life’s crushing load whose forms are bending low,
who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing;
O rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing.
(E H Sears, 1810-1876)
The truth is here for all to see… Oh Lord, have mercy upon the closed mind and the proud heart, remove the veil and let people see you in all your beauty.